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Taking Ourselves Out of Galut, One Midah at a Time

Written by שלמה מאיר, 23/4/2019


The story of Pesach is the story of Bnei Yisrael’s long history. We are brought into Egypt as 70 souls and leave as a nation of 600,000. We were persecuted and we grew. The story of our exodus is quoted all over our Jewish liturgy - it is a focal point of our Jewish history.

The Jewish people are known as the am hanivchar, the chosen people. In a number of places the Torah describes the Jews as having a fond relationship with G-d. We are His children and He is our Father. We are forced to ask: if Israel was so loved by Hashem, why were we subject to enslavement by the Egyptians?

The answer is brought down in the Midrash. R’ Chanina taught that Hashem acts in midah k’neged midah, He reciprocates our deeds. The midrash continues, before the children of Yaakov descended to Egypt the children of the foremothers - Rachel and Leah - would disgrace the children of the maidservants - bilaah and zilpah. The children born to a higher class, so to speak, didn’t treated their less-privileged brothers with fondness. So too, Hashem chose not to act with fondness to the Jewish people - since the matriachartic children didn’t treat the servant’s childrens properly, we were sent down to Egypt to become slaves ourselves. In this way Hashem acted “midah k’neged midah.”

In a way, our time spent as slave in Egypt was meant to serve as a cleansing process for the Children of Israel. Upon Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people were given just one commandment, just one test, if you will, in order to see if the cleansing process had been effective: treat each other with respect. Behave properly towards one another with proper middot. Furthermore, once freed, the Jewish nation were given the mitzvah of Pesach for every generation, so that we can all say, עבדים הינו לפרעה, instilling a clear message in the heart of the nation: no matter one’s background, we are all equals.

Our time in Egypt was due to our lackluster middot. In his sefer Olam HaMiddot, Rav Kestenbaum writes that Hashem requires us to behave in a way that is higher than what people would normally call proper behavior. Very fittingly, Rav Kestenbaum quotes a gemara in Bava Metzia that says one who acquires an eved ivri has really acquired a master unto himself. How so? Because the pasuk states עמך, which the gemara explains to mean that you cannot have something better than your Jewish servant. For example, if you drink aged wine, you may not give the servant new wine, rather he too must be given the same quality wine. This is already far beyond how the rest of the world treat their servants, but through his question, Tosfot take this one step further.

Tosfot asks, why do the sages call him a “master,” isn’t he only an equal to his acquirer? Tosfot gives a jaw-dropping answer. In a case where there is only one pillow the servant is the one to receive it rather than his so-called master. In this way, the owner really did acquire a master.

If this is the way we must treat our Jewish servants, certainly we must treat our free brothers with a high sense of dignity. The Gra, in his commentary to sefer Mishlei, explains that if one is not working on his middot, “למה לו חיים, why does he have a life?”

The Jews were sent to Egypt to reinstill their sense of purpose, their life, their חיים. After the matriarch’s children made fun of the maidservant’s, they were forced to answer a collective למה לו חיים, and were sent to Egypt for 210 years until they were able to give an affirmative answer by fulfilling their single mitzvah of treating each other properly. When בני ישראל, 603 was taken out of ארץ מצרים, 671, they were left with חיים, 68. They had answered, yes! We have life! We are able to be constantly working on ourselves.

Let us also choose to constantly work on ourselves so that we also may be freed from our galut.

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