Salvation from servitude: A Passover tale of the midrash

What eternal slavery did Pharaoh introduce from which only God’s salvation could liberate us?

April 26, 2019 16:33
Salvation from servitude: A Passover tale of the midrash

"I'm not your slave" (illustrative). (photo credit: PIXABAY)

‘If God had not redeemed us from Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would remain slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

This wild assertion in the Haggadah explains that despite the bending and twisting arc of history throughout the millennia, were it not for God’s salvation, today we would still be slaves to the dynasty of pharaohs.

What eternal slavery did Pharaoh introduce from which only God’s salvation could liberate us?

The rabbinic midrash (Tanhuma, Beha’alotcha 13) explores the enigmatic biblical term characterizing Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites – “farech” – a term used only this once in the Bible and whose etymology is unclear. The midrash suggests that the word is a compound of two common words, peh (mouth) and rach (smooth).

The midrash then continues, saying Pharaoh’s enslavement was achieved using his “peh rach,” his suave demeanor. One day Pharaoh himself picked up tools to work and asked the Israelites to pick up tools alongside him, to join in on a building project. However, by the end of the day, after having established the capacity of motivated volunteers, Pharaoh himself stepped away and appointed taskmasters to oversee the Israelites’ labor and insist upon an automated standard of production. Pharaoh lulled the Israelites into a slavery that seized upon the spirit of human kindness and motivated interest and then abruptly quashed the human agency and free expression in pursuit of mechanizing a “quota of bricks.”

This, the midrash explains, is the nature of the servitude of Egypt. Pharaoh manipulated work, the fruit of human endeavor, into an existence without willing personal expression. Pharaoh instituted a servitude of work without soul. God’s redemption from Egypt is not just the freedom from tyranny of Pharaoh, but the freedom to embrace our humanity and vibrancy as reflected in our free will. Our exodus from Egypt reaffirms the basis of our creation as unique, innovative partners with God in all our endeavors.

The midrash (ibid. Pekudei 9:1), in fact, highlights an active resistance against Pharaoh’s treachery. In his efforts to suppress all sexual desire and hope for a future, Pharaoh decreed that men remain in the fields at night away from their homes. In response, the women then went out and met their husbands in the fields with food and wine and gazed into copper mirrors that they brought along, each playfully staring at the other through the mirror, saying “I am more beautiful than you,” and the other responding “I am more beautiful than you.” This playful teasing was a defiant means to reawaken the passion implicit in humanity – even while physically enslaved.

What is surprising in this midrash is that as a first step to unleashing desire, each person looked at their own reflection in the mirror. Each person exclaimed enthusiasm for their own beauty, as the initial step in awakening their soul.

The midrash acknowledges the unease of this self-embrace and focus. When the Tabernacle was built and people brought their most valuable property to contribute to its construction, Moses objected and refused the women who brought these very same mirrors as a holy contribution, dismissing them as too base for the holy construction.

The midrash continues with none other than God himself, who chastises Moses and explains that these mirrors produced the multitudes of the Jewish people in Egypt! Not only are they wanted, but these mirrors should be designated to serve as the wash basins to purify the priests.

While self-embrace is often associated with negative conceptions of excessive vanity, the midrash explains that the basis of our capacity for emotion and radical creative action also lies in this same self-centeredness.

The exodus from Egypt reendows our humanity. To be human is to recognize that “just as our faces are unique, so, too, are our ideas” (Brachot 58a). We are not to be automated; we are not to be replicas of one another. Rather, just as God created each of us with unique features and physical attributes, so, too, we are blessed with free will and intellectual capacity.

AS WE celebrate this freedom, do we remain enslaved to Pharaoh’s vision of automated labor and abdicate our creative capacity, or do we lay claim to our unique qualities and passions created in the image of God?

As servants of God, do we apply the robotic gestures of disempowered slaves, or do we acknowledge His charge to create a service reflecting our truest selves?

Are we slaves to conforming to a singular image or expectation of ourselves or others, or do we open ourselves up, seeking to develop our most authentic human expression?

When we see people suffering on the margins of society, are we slaves to the apathy of indifference or do we empathize as people once foreigners in Egypt and embrace the responsibility to act?

When we recite prayers, are we slaves to the structure of our liturgy, with a mechanical recitation of the words printed on the page, or do we add new dimensions to our prayers and embrace standing before God as unique creations?

When developing our self-image, are we slaves to images of beauty as dictated by others, or do we take inspiration from the Israelite women’s defiance of Pharaoh looking into mirrors, developing appreciation for our own unique features?

Our journey down to Egypt begins with Abraham’s covenant of the pieces. God instructs him to go out and look at the wonder of the vast starry night sky as a prototype for his descendants. As Abraham is told that his children will be enslaved and then redeemed, he is awed by the expansive unique image of the constellations representing infinite possibilities and beauty.

Our true freedom from Pharaoh’s Egypt is in taking the inspiration from these stars and using our own unique light to guide our path.

The writer, a rabbanit, is director of Moed in Zichron Ya’acov, a community-based nonprofit that joins together secular and religious Jews in study and social action. She also teaches Talmud and Jewish law at Matan.

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