As if a slave, as if free: Pesah 5780

Pharaoh says something odd to Moses and Aaron right at the start of their confrontation: “Why do you distract the people from their tasks? Get to your labors!” The first half of the sentence implies that Moses and Aaron are not enslaved like other Israelites with “their tasks.” But by the end of the verse Pharaoh includes the leaders with their people—“Get to your labors!” Well, which is it? At this point are Moses and Aaron free, or enslaved?

This ambiguity is addressed in Midrash Shemot Rabbah. Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi is quoted there saying that the tribe of Levi was free from harsh labor in Egypt. This is why Moses and Aaron were at leisure to walk around and engage Pharaoh in conversation. Apparently he noticed this and decided that their freedom was a problem, and so he commanded them to join in the labor.

This little piece of Midrash is modified by Rashi, who preserves the essential point—the Levites were exempt from slavery. He understands the end of the verse somewhat differently—Pharaoh tells Moses and Aaron to return to their housework, not to assume slave labors, since they remained free Israelites in Egypt. Maharal adds to Rashi in his Gur Aryeh super-commentary, saying that Levi was exalted and exempted from the prophecy given to Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved.

The Levites seem to have had a knack for evading punishments, at least in the rabbinic imagination. In Bavli Bava Batra (121b) Rav Hamnuna says that the tribe of Levi was exempted from the punishment of dying in the desert, perhaps because they didn’t participate in the golden calf incident. And while this claim of Levite survival in the wilderness seems far from the text of the Torah, like all good Midrash, it explains a “problem”—why would Moses object to dying on Mt Nebo if he knew that only Joshua and Caleb were designated to survive from Egypt and enter the land? Moses thought that his status as a Levite would save him, but not so.

The ambiguous status of the Levites seems familiar. We too may feel simultaneously a part of the story, and apart from it. We can imagine enslavement, and may have suffered serious oppression, but we haven’t really lived as slaves. On the collective level we, the Jewish people, see ourselves as descendants from these ancient Israelites. But then again, is any Jew today really 100% descended from them? Are you sure?

The ambiguity of feeling connected to a story which may not be entirely our own is explored in a Haggadah commentary that I have been reading by the Hida, Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azulai. The greatest Sephardic rabbi of the 18th century, he was born in Jerusalem and served most of his career in Leghorn, Italy. (Unfortunately, his Haggadah commentary, Simhah shel Regel, is not in the Bar Ilan collection, but you can download it at Hebrewbooks.org here. See p.36 of the PDF, at ואפשר).

Hida wants to know why the Haggadah’s statement, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” is followed by the story of the five rabbis in B’nai Brak. True, the statement says, “even if we were all sages…we would be commanded to tell the story of the Exodus from Mitzrayim,” and these rabbis included some of the greatest sages of Jewish history. If they spent the night telling the story, then surely we can last until karpas!

Hida has a different theory. He thinks that these rabbis (well, four of them) come from the tribe of Levi, and that the word וכל, “and all” is an acronym for Kohen and Levi (כהן ולוי—you have to rearrange, ok?). Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Elazar b. Azaria and Rabbi Tarfon were known to be Kohanim; Rabbi Yehoshua was a Levite, so most of the group could credibly say, “actually, my people weren’t really slaves in Egypt.” And yet even though this wasn’t entirely their story, they made it so, and spent the night exploring it in depth. (By the way Hida has a problem—Rabbi Akiva was not a Kohen or Levi. Hida fudges the point by saying it covers “most” of the sages, but Rabbi Menahem Kasher salvages and improves the drashah by noting that Akiva was descended from converts, and so he too could evade saying, “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” And yet, Akiva attached himself to the narrative, and made it his own. See Haggadah Sheleimah, p.14, n. 112).

The Exodus is a great story because everyone can identify with it, often in a different way each year. I once heard a pastor at Howard University Divinity School preach the Exodus with power and urgency that I had never experienced. This year we will no doubt focus on the fear of the Israelites hiding in their homes as the plague roamed their cities and decimated the population. We have a new understanding of ליל שמורים, a night of vigil, during this Pesah of Covid when we fear even to invite close family to share our meal. Our oppressor is not a tyrant but a virus, though poor government certainly has contributed to intensifying the calamity.

The Hasidic master Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Ger identifies the tension of both identifying and not identifying with the Exodus from Egypt in his Sefat Emet commentary. He notes that the famous phrase, “In every generation a person should see themselves as if (כאלו) they left Egypt” contains that hint of skepticism. This exercise is “as if,” and yet a few lines later we proclaim, “God took us out of Egypt” (ואותנו הוציא). Somehow in the telling we transform our identification from make believe to true connection. And this, he says, enables each generation to experience the liberation in its own terms, “so that everyone can escape their own prison” (ויוכל לצאת כל אחד ממיצר שלו).

Ambiguity is part of the power of Pesah. From the beginning of the biblical text until our own retellings, we feel both inside and outside of the narrative. We are both vulnerable and powerful, both oppressed and uplifted, both connected and alienated from a story that has been told for more than three millennia, and is still growing in meaning. This is why we continue to tell it—to add to the story of liberation, to understand it in new dimensions, to take courage from its drama, and to live its message in our own challenging times.

שמות פרק ה, א

וְאַחַר בָּאוּ מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל פַּרְעֹה כֹּה אָמַר ה’ אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שַׁלַּח אֶת עַמִּי וְיָחֹגּוּ לִי בַּמִּדְבָּר:

שמות רבה (שנאן) פרשת שמות פרשה ה ד”ה ה, טז לכו

ה, טז לכו לסבלתיכם (/שמות/ ה’). אמר ריב”ל: שבטו של לוי פנוי היה מעבודת פרך. אמר להם פרעה: בשביל שאתם עומדים פנויים אתם אומרים: נלכה נזבחה לאלהינו (/שמות/ ה’), לכו לסבלתיכם אמר לישראל. דבר אחר: לכו לסבלתיכם – לא דייכם שאתם פנויים? שמא רע לכם שאין אתם עושים מלאכה? לכו לסבלתיכם.

רש”י שמות פרשת שמות פרק ה

לכו לסבלתיכם – לכו למלאכתכם שיש לכם לעשות בבתיכם. אבל מלאכת שעבוד מצרים לא היתה על שבטו של לוי, ותדע לך שהרי משה ואהרן יוצאים ובאים שלא ברשות:

גור אריה שמות פרשת שמות פרק ה

(ד) שבטו של לוי לא נשתעבדו. ואם תאמר ומאי שנא שבטו של לוי שלא נשתעבד מכל שאר השבטים, וגזירת “כי גר יהיה זרעך” (בראשית טו, יג) על הכל, יש לומר דכתיב “כי גר יהיה זרעך”, ואילו שבטו של לוי היה חלק גבוה, כי יעקב נתן אותו למעשר כדאיתא במסכת בכורות, והיה הוא כולו לגבוה, ולכך לא היה בכלל השעבוד.

בבלי בבא בתרא דף קכא עמוד ב

אמר רב המנונא: לא נגזרה גזרה על שבטו של לוי, דכתיב: במדבר הזה יפלו פגריכם וכל פקודיכם לכל מספרכם מבן עשרים שנה ומעלה, מי שפקודיו מבן עשרים, יצא שבטו של לוי שפקודיו מבן שלשים.

שפת אמת ויקרא פסח

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כו’ ואח”כ אמר ואותנו הוציא. ונראה כי ע”י אמונה שיש יציאת מצרים לכל דור ודור נתגלה זה. ומהר”ל כתב כי בכלל הי’ כל אחד ביציאת מצרים רק חייב לראות כאלו יצא בפרט ע”ש. וי”ל ג”כ כנ”ל שע”י אמונה נכנס לתוך הכלל ובוודאי בכלל הי’ יצ”מ לנקודה הישראלית שמשם נמשך חיים לכל איש ישראל רק ע”י אמונה באין לזה. ואחר שרואה עצמו כאלו יצא. ויודע ומאמין כי גם ההארה שיש לו לא הי’ לולי יצ”מ. עי”ז נתגלה לו שרואה איך יוצא באמת. וכן הפי’ בסיפור יציאת מצרים אפילו כולנו חכמים כו’. כי אף שהוא חכם דבוק בה’ חיים יש לו לידע כי כל זה ע”י יצ”מ שהאמת כן רק שצריך לברר זה ע”י אמונה והוא הסיפור לשון בירור וגילוי מפורשת כי בכל דור יש יציאת מצרים לפי ענין הדור וכ”ז הי’ בשעת יציאת מצרים. וכפי אמונת האדם כאילו יצא נתגלה בחי’ זו ומרגיש מיצ”מ של עתה ויוכל לצאת כל אחד ממיצר שלו: