One of the major aspects of the Seder night is the many items and actions utilized to commemorate our slavery in Egypt. We eat maror, the bitter herbs, we dip a vegetable in salt-water, we eat the bread of affliction, we have charoses meant to symbolize the bricks our forefathers fashioned with their own sweat and blood, and we read in the Haggadah at length about our shibud, our bondage, to Paroh and the Egyptians.
Why all this stress on our slavery? We can understand, of course, the great emphasis placed during the Seder night on our redemption from slavery. We lean back as kings, we eat a festive meal, and we commemorate the Korban Pesach our forefathers brought under the very noses of the Egyptians while awaiting their redemption. We were freed from Egypt on Pesach night, so of course we commemorate that freedom.
Why commemorate the slavery aspect, though, and why with so much emphasis?
The simple explanation given is that without properly appreciating the depth of our enslavement, one cannot truly appreciate the miracle and joy of our redemption.
While this is true, there is a deeper message here for us as well.
I Have To?
Rav Dovid Orlofsky once spoke of a certain shock a man often faces after his marriage. As we grow up and get older, we tend to become more and more independent. Often, we attend a yeshiva where we dorm and look after our own laundry and see to other aspects of our lives.
Rav Orlofsky mentions how he himself, while living at home after returning from Eretz Yisroel, had a job directing an entire chapter of NCSY. He tells of the time his mother found him on the phone at 2 a.m. Being a good Jewish mother, she yelled at him for being up so late. He had a difficult time explaining to her that he had a troubled teen on the line and was dealing with a life and death situation. As he so humorously puts it, you’re never old enough in your mother’s eyes. A person might be forty years old, but his mother will still remind him to tuck himself in and put on a coat before going out.
Eventually, even a mother comes to realize that her child has become independent, makes his own hours, and leads his own life.
Then the fellow gets married. Imagine if an emergency comes up and he does not arrive at home until past 2 a.m. His wife is frantic. He explains that a teenager was in crisis, it was a life and death situation, and he was just busy.
“So you should call and let me know!” his wife protests. “I would understand. You can’t simply disappear until 2 a.m.!”
The man is shocked. Even his mother no longer asks where he is or what he is doing. Now, suddenly, he has to answer to somebody else?
We understand, however, that marriage indeed comes along with shibudim, with responsibilities, with an “I have to.” When one is on his own, he may not be answerable to any other entity. If we want to have a relationship with somebody else, though, we realize that a relationship comes with a certain amount of responsibility, answerability, and “I have tos.” One cannot ignore or tune out everyone other than himself and every need other than his own and still maintain a relationship with others. A relationship comes with commitment, and the deeper the relationship, the greater the commitment.
Self-Motivation vs. Binding Obligation
Perhaps one of the characteristics we’ve most lost growing up in a completely democratic society is that of feeling innately obliged or subservient to any other being or entity. In previous times – we’ve lived under kings, czars, monarchs and dictators until quite recently – either we had no rights or some rights. Even under the more liberal and understanding governments, we knew that our rights had limits and we could only push so far. At some point, we knew there was no further recourse and we were forced to endure whatever fate, laws or decrees were placed upon us.
Thus, the mentality of there being many things that we simply “have to do” was not foreign to us. There was virtually no such thing, anywhere in the world, as just doing whatever one wanted. Our minds were never conditioned as such, and we harbored no such expectations.
In such a society, understanding a commitment to a spouse, to family, and, most of all, to Hashem, our Creator, was simply an extension of characteristics we already possessed. Every person had responsibilities, so one understood that he was surely most responsible to his very Creator. The thousands of parables found throughout the words of Chazal and our seforim which begin, “Moshol l’melech, it is like a king who…,” indicate how readily understandable such examples were.
In today’s society, by contrast, the entire concept is virtually non-existent. The moshol is usually more foreign to us than the nimshol, the example more abstract than the lesson itself. The fear of a monarch, the idea of a binding obligation, the notion that we “have to” do anything is something we simply cannot comprehend.
“I have to? Make me! I don’t want to.”
We have rights, we have options, we have choice. We choose to do good or not, to listen to whomever or not, to heed someone’s advice or not. Nobody can force us. We’ll listen when we’re good and ready to listen.
In such a climate, our Yiddishkeit has become one of choice as well. We aim to motivate and inspire our children, our students and ourselves to want to do the right thing, because trying to force any part of it simply will not work. Whether we like it or not, telling a child that they have to do anything fails to impress them, because the entire concept is foreign to them, as it is to us.
Our chinuch and the shiurim and shmuessen we attend for our own growth center, for the most part, on self-motivation. We want to be inspired to accept this or that commitment, and we aim to inspire our charges as well. We cannot imagine any other way.
From Mitzrayim to Mount Sinai
The truth, however, is that we actually do have to do the right thing, whether we like it or not. In practical reality, sadly, it may indeed be that knowing of our obligation to certain behaviors is not always enough to get us to actually act that way. Still, perhaps it might be worthwhile recognizing at the very least that such an obligation does in fact exist.
Without question, all the inspiration and motivation we glean is absolutely authentic. A Torah life is indeed the most beautiful life possible, and we should want to keep all its bylaws and endure any sacrifice it entails. We can show our children and students how wonderful a Torah life is and how empty a life devoid of sacrifice for Hashem and His Torah is. Hashem created the world to do chesed, and the Torah’s ways are pleasant. If ever we fail to see or feel that, it’s we who are missing something.
While all that is true – we should indeed want to serve Hashem and there is no reason not to – it is surely proper for us to know that even if we would not want to, chas veshalom, we do still have that responsibility. Hashem created us. He gives us life. We owe him our very existence and are obligated to do as He desires.
Suppose someone employs us for fifteen years. He gives us the best terms, is easy on sick days and paid leave, agrees to work around our schedule, and is committed to keeping us on the payroll. Would we be so quick to refuse a request of his? Or would we feel a commitment and a responsibility to do as he asks regardless of whatever difficulty that might necessitate on our part?
Surely we would feel that at least on some level we owe something to a good employer, a steadfast friend or a generous benefactor.
Our nation was enslaved in Egypt, subjugated to the lowest idol-worshipping and depraved society. Many nations before and since have suffered even lesser fates and have thereafter ceased to function as independent, productive or principled people. Hashem, however, despite the lack of our own merit, took us out with great fanfare and even greater miracles. We recite an entire Dayeinu paean on the Seder night listing the many, many fantastic and undeserved acts of loving-kindness Hashem showered upon us besides the redemption from Egypt itself.
Don’t we owe Hashem for all that? How can we not? If anyone we knew would do even a hundredth of what was done for us on that one night, we would feel forever obligated to him. Whether we liked it or not, we would simply feel that we owed him. How much more so if we actually liked what he asked of us and recognized that all of it is for our own good!
Hashem took us from Mitzrayim, relieving us from the physical bondage as well as the foul turpitude among which we dwelled. Did He let us free? Were we told to go and be on our own from here onward?
We were taken to Har Sinai and presented with Heaven’s most valuable asset, the Torah. “I am Hashem, your G-d, Who redeemed you from the land of Egypt. You shall…”
Hashem redeemed us from slavery. Ladies and gentlemen, now we owe Him. True, we hardly have a concept of what it means to owe or be beholden to any person or entity. True, the Torah is the greatest gift and we want to obey all its directives anyhow. Ultimately, though, we do owe Him. If we find ourselves in a difficult spot, in a spiritual slump where we lose our inner drive, we have to know that we owe Him in any case.
Now we can understand the great emphasis placed on the Seder night not only on our redemption, but on our slavery. Why speak of the slavery specifically on this night? Isn’t this the night we were granted freedom?
In truth, however, we were never simply “let free.” We were taken from Egyptian bondage to be Hashem’s nation. We emphasize the shibud, the servitude, to internalize what we had and what was now transferred to Him. We are His nation, His children, His servants. Yes, we want to serve Him, but we have to serve Him as well.
Saying No – Setting Limits
As we’ve already mentioned, though we must know all of this, on a practical level we have to understand that for us and our children, we should work with motivation and inspiration. Obligations are simply an alien concept in this generation. “It’s a free country,” is a notion to which we truly subscribe.
Is there no hope, then, of instilling in our children at least a modicum, a sense, some sort of feeling that the world and life are not actually a free-for-all? Is there some way of giving over an appreciation for the fact that a human being – and especially a Jew – has responsibilities?
Rav Chaim Epstein zt”l would point to the overly permissive way that parents today raise their children. Of course, parents mean well, and most are doing what they believe is truly best. Still, whether because of a mistaken notion that a child who is never told “no” will be a happy child, whether out of trepidation that being told “no” will turn a child away, or whether due to the belief that children should be helped to make their own decisions rather than be told not to do things, many children are brought up having hardly ever heard a firm “no” from their parents.
Is it surprising, then, that when they grow older, they simply have no ability to hear a “no” of the Torah? We try to instill in them a desire to keep the Torah and we hope that they will forever want to do so. The concept, though, of doing something because one has a responsibility to do so is completely out of their frame of reference. Albeit unwittingly, we’ve taken those tools away from them. We’ve never given them the concept of “I have to.”
Of course one must know how to say no, when to say no, and to ensure that a child feels – even if he does not understand – that the parent is acting out of love and in the child’s best interest. Nor is it easy to say no and put up with the reaction of an unhappy child. In the long run, however, when the child will become an adult and face life on his own, he will have gotten from us the lifelong ability to be able to relate to the concept that the world is not one big free-for-all where you do good and act justly only if and when you feel like it.
We can teach our children that a human being, a mentch, a Yid, has responsibilities that transcend one’s own self.
Chag kosher vesomeiach.