Slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt: Now What?
Avadim Hayinu: We Were Slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt
We intend to tell the central Jewish story: How God brought us out of Egypt and took us as God’s people. Might it suffice to just recite kiddush over the wine, in which we say, “ … You gave us set times for rejoicing, moments and seasons of celebration, this festive day of unleavened bread, season of our liberation, a day of sacred assembly, a day to be mindful of our people’s going forth from Egypt … ” If we remind ourselves of the exodus, have we met our obligation to “tell the story?”
No, it would not, because our slavery, our suffering, contained many components and multiple lessons. For instance, our Hebrew ancestors were both physical and spiritual slaves, unable to escape bodily but also possessing a slave mentality. Both components of slavery, the physical and the spiritual, need addressing, as they differ. We might escape one but continue to be bound by the other.
But which comes first: physical bondage or spiritual bondage? Our haggadahs take on physical slavery first. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord our God brought us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” The prayer goes on to elaborate on our obligation to tell the story, “Even if all of us were wise and learned in Torah, … it would be a commandment to tell the story of the Exodus. Indeed, the more we elaborate the more praiseworthy.”
Were we slaves only this one time, in Egypt? We were exiled to Babylonia; attacked by the Syrian Greeks; the Temple was again destroyed by the Romans; and we have been persecuted in nearly every country in the Western World at one time or another. Therefore the Redemption we celebrate on Passover night is not just from Egypt, but God’s redemption from all of the persecutions that the Jewish people has endured over 3 millennia. When we recite that we were once slaves, we recall all of the persecutions from which God redeemed us. We peer into the future as if through a dream, to a messianic time when persecutions will cease and we will finally be redeemed for all time.
Tradition ordains that we teach the laws, stories and customs of the exodus night until midnight, when the slaves left Egypt. But perhaps even more essential, we must consider ourselves as having been slaves and share our own stories of bondage. Not only must we see ourselves as having been in Egypt. It’s incumbent and meaningful also to recount how we are slaves to modern taskmasters, to our work, to our obligations. Are we free or are we slaves? Not just mentally, but are we in control of our own lives?
Are our obligations a form of modern slavery? Here’s my suggestion. When our ancestors left Egypt, they did not receive licenses to do whatever came to mind. No, they left involuntary servitude to Pharaoh to become voluntary servants to God, an obligation they took on at Sinai, receiving the Torah. So, in the places in which you feel in bondage, are you serving God or some idol? At work? Doing things for your family? Pursuing hobbies or other voluntary activities: are you serving the Most High, or some idol of your own making: like a higher standard of living or more social status? We all feel overwhelmed at times, but is it because we have chosen a higher calling, or because we have strapped ourselves to a Pharaoh or our own making?