Rabbi Guy Tal: The Holiday of Liberty

Rabbi Guy Tal

by Rabbi Guy Tal

(Edmonton) – The commandment most vital on the Night of the Seder is the narration of the Haggadah: “And you shall tell your child on that day.” This night is entirely dedicated to recounting the Exodus from Egypt. The meals, songs, and other customs we observe on that night are meant to transmit the marvelous tale of the formation of the people of Israel from amidst hardships and suffering, and to pass on the Jewish tradition and faith from generation to generation.

The Talmud emphasizes that the recounting of the Exodus must follow a very specific format: “It begins with disgrace and concludes with praise.” In other words, the Talmud demands that the narrative begins not from Moses’ mission to Pharaoh, nor from the great miracles of the Ten Plagues, but specifically from disgrace, bad things, that one would be embarrassed about. Why start with disgrace? The Maharal of Prague explains in his book, “Netzach Yisrael”:

“The good is truly known from its opposite. Indeed, all things are truly understood through their opposite. From the sight of darkness, one can know the appearance of light. And likewise, all opposites are understood from one another, and for this reason, it is said in the Talmud in regards to the Haggadah, ‘It begins with disgrace and concludes with praise.’ And why start with disgrace? Only because true recognition of praise comes only from its opposite.”

The Talmud presents two opinions regarding the question of what constitutes that disgrace with which to begin: Rav said: “Initially, our forefathers were idolaters, and now the Omnipresent has brought us close to His service.” Shmuel said, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

According to Rav, “disgrace” means that our forefathers were idolaters (referring to Terach, the father of Abraham, and his forefathers). We understand why this is a bad thing. But according to Shmuel, the disgrace is that our forefathers were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Why is this considered disgraceful? Surely, it was a sad and difficult time in our history, but apparently not something for which we can blame the people of Israel. G-d decreed that our forefathers would descend to Egypt and become slaves, as He said to Abraham: “And G-d said to Abraham, ‘Know for certain that your offspring will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs and will be slaves there,and they will serve them and they will afflict them four hundred years.'” So what’s disgraceful about that?

On this question, the Admo”r of Slonim answers in his book “Netivot Shalom”: “We must explain the dispute between Rav and Shmuel, where Rav believes that the greatest disgrace of the Jews is idolatry, since the root of every Jew is faith, and therefore this disgrace is the greatest. 

And Shmuel believes that disgrace is that our forefathers were slaves to Pharaoh. Not the actual servitude, which they were forced into by the decree of G-d, but that the decree was only ‘they will serve them and they will afflict them,’ but it was not decreed upon them to be entirely subjugated in spirit. This is the greatest disgrace of the Jews, that they lose their selfhood and become entirely subservient to the impurity of Egypt.”

Disgrace is not being a slave in body but being a slave in spirit. To submit to another culture, to other values, to another tradition. The disgrace of slavery is the loss of self. This explanation recalls the words of Nathan Sharansky to the judge in Soviet Russia: “You, the judge, think that you are free! You think so because after the trial, you will go home, whereas I will be the one subjugated, since I will go to prison for a long time. But know that between us, I am the true free man! Indeed, my body may be enslaved, but my spirit shall remain free, since I feel that I did not submit to your decrees and remained faithful to my beliefs. But for you, judge, it is predetermined what to say! Your body indeed is released, but you are not free to decide according to your belief. Your spirit is enslaved, and this is much worse.”

In another place, Sharansky wrote: “Not the iron curtain, not the prison, not the torture, not all these together can stop the journey of man to freedom.”

Indeed, freedom also brings responsibility. Responsibility to be who I am. To actualize my talents and unique abilities, as the Jewish philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergman wrote about Passover:

“We speak here of the individual and his liberation from the iron shackles of slavery. And here, each and every one must debate with himself, to clarify to himself, what is his ‘Egypt’:..

Let us conclude with a line from the poem of Rabbi Judah Halevi:

עבדי הזמן – עבדי עבדים הם

עבד ה’ – הוא לבד חופשי

“Servants of time – they are slaves of slaves

Servant of G-d – He alone is truly free”

חג חרות כשר ושמח

Rabbi Guy Tal is the Rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation – “The Family Shul” – in Edmonton. 

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