Thursday, April 10, 2014

Becoming a slave

A thought for Pesach:

Many themes thread through the events of our departure from Egypt, but one caught my eye this week: The focus on time and schedule -

The Jews are told on Rosh Chodesh Nisan (Shemot 12:1) that they should plan to designate a lamb on the tenth of Nisan (ibid. 12:3), to be slaughtered on the fourteenth of Nisan (ibid. 12:6), for their meal on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan. (ibid. 12:8) They are told to eat from this meal only that night; anything left until the morning is to be burned. (ibid. 12:10)

The Jews are told that for all generations, they are to observe this holiday of Pesach for seven days - and repeatedly, the schedule for the holiday is drilled into them: For seven days you shall eat matzah. On the preceding day you shall destroy chametz. Anyone who eats chametz from Day 1 to Day 7 will be punished. The first day shall be holy. The seventh day shall be holy. On the fourteenth day of the month, at night, you shall eat matzah, until the 21st day of the month, at night. For seven days, chametz shall not be found in your homes. (ibid. 12:15-19)

Moshe emphasizes to Pharaoh that the plague striking the firstborn will happen in the middle of the night (ibid. 11:4), and indeed, we are told that it happens at midnight (ibid. 12:29)

And the departure is emphatically punctual; we are told, "The Children of Israel dwelled in Egypt for 430 years. And it was, at the end of 430 years, on that very day, G-d's multitudes left Egypt." (ibid. 12:40-41)

Why are these schedules drummed into our heads? Here's one thought: When a slave is freed, the least likely result is that he will get up on time the next day. But the Jews are told that they are not becoming free in order to serve their own desires; rather, they are becoming free in order to serve a new master. They are now to become avdei HaShem, servants of G-d, and to run on G-d's schedule. All will happen on the clock of the Boss.

Of course, one might then ask whether the Jews gained anything at all by leaving Egypt; indeed, the Jews themselves asked this question repeatedly in the ensuing months. But a quick comparison of their bosses provides the answer: When serving Pharaoh, the goal was to satisfy Pharaoh's needs. When serving G-d, the goal would be to grow and develop as human beings and as Jews. The mitzvot, as a midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 44:1) declares, are meant not to satisfy G-d, but to purify G-d creations.

When we celebrate Pesach, then, we celebrate not release from slavery, but entry into a new relationship. As we say at the start of Hallel, "Hallelu, avdei HaShem!" Praise G-d, servants of G-d!

To my mind, this is the challenge of Jewish History: Will a free person choose a Master? And meeting this challenge is our mission on Pesach.

[I am grateful to my chavrusa, Jerry Balitsky, for planting the seed of this idea in my head.]

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