It was during the Seder when a question was asked, a question so simple and so basic but one that was accompanied by shockwaves.
We had just finished the four kashos and Avodim Hayinu. We had just finished describing how we had been avodim to Paroh in Mitzrayim and Hashem took us out with a strong hand. Amazing. Wow! Now are no longer subservient to Paroh. We are free!
“Really?” one of the teenagers at the table very innocently asked. “I thought we are still in golus. I don’t understand. In those days, we were slaves to Paroh, and today we are still in golus. If someone lives in Russia, they are avodim to Putin. If they live in Eretz Yisroel, they are avodim to the anti-religious government. If they live in America, they are avodim to their phones and devices…and perhaps the Justice Department, the FBI and Big Brother.”
Seriously, the question is a most basic one. What did we gain from Hashem taking us out of Mitzrayim if we are still subject to the challenges of golus? Granted, we can say that America of today is a somewhat hospitable golus, but what about all the other stops in our golus?
Throughout the centuries, Yidden have continued singing Avodim Hayinu. Even under the Spanish Inquisition we sang it. Throughout years of pogroms in Ukraine and other countries, we sang it. We have all heard stories of Yidden gathering in the barracks in Auschwitz and other death/concentration camps, where, after a backbreaking day of slave labor, under the very noses of the Nazis, they sang Avodim Hayinu on the Seder night.
So, what is the answer?
The Difference Between Golus Mitzrayim and the Other Goluyos
It so happens that a few weeks ago, I began to read the remarkable book about Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. As soon as I thought about the above-mentioned question, the first thing that came to my mind was that if this insightful teen had read the book, she would not have that question.
Reb Sholom Mordechai comprehensively explains how the euphemistically named “Department of Corrections” does anything but help a person correct his behavior. On the contrary, every aspect of the prison is designed to strip a person of his humanity, psychologically removing all life, all chiyus, from him, and making him live robotically like a slave.
When one reads how Reb Sholom Mordechai transcended that “slave mentality” and lived a life full of chiyus, bitachon, avodas Hashem, chesed, chassidus, shemiras eiynayim and shemiras machshavah despite the slavery, perversion, injustice and animalistic culture around him, one can be sure that even in these subsequent exiles since Mitzrayim, it is possible to be free. It is possible for the neshomah to be free and soar, even when incarcerated in a tiny cell, with roommates you would run away from if you met them in the street, and a culture that epitomizes golus.
The truth, however, is that the Sefas Emes (5657) addresses this very question and teaches us a foundational lesson about the difference between the golus of Mitzrayim and the other exiles that we have tragically experienced since then.
The Sefas Emes says that the golus of Mitzrayim was so pervasive that we were simply not able to accept upon ourselves ol Malchus Shomayim. It was impossible. We were so tied down by the actual golus that it was impossible to even think about anything other than the golus. The Zohar Hakadosh explains that a person who is tied down with heavy ropes by another person simply does not have the wherewithal to accept upon himself Malchus Shomayim.
It was even worse than Otisville. In Otisville, it was extremely difficult, but it was humanly possible to transcend that golus as, indeed, Reb Sholom Mordechai did. In Mitzrayim, before Matan Torah, it wasn’t.
The question, however, is: Why are the terrible exiles that we have undergone since then any better? Really, was Mitzrayim worse than Auschwitz? Why was it not possible to transcend the golus of Mitzrayim?
The answer, according to the Sefas Emes, is contained in the first posuk that we will say this Pesach in Hallel. The posuk states, “Hallelu avdei Hashem – Those who are avdei Hashem should give praise to Hashem.” The Gemara learns from this posuk that from the moment we left Mitzrayim, we made a fundamental switch. We were transformed from avdei Paroh, from slaves of Paroh, to avdei Hashem. In other words, Hashem gave us a new status at Yetzias Mitzrayim, a status that was strengthened at Krias Yam Suf and then solidified and locked in at Har Sinai. Ever since then, we are forever avdei Hashem.
What does that mean for us? It means that no matter what the goyim do to us, no matter what we suffer in golus, there is and always will be a part of us that can never be subservient to the goyim. There is a part of us that is purely an eved Hashem, and that is something that no one can ever take away from us.
How do Yidden Dance Before Being Killed?
We hear stories of Yidden who were in the worst possible goluyos, in the kefirah of Communist Russia, in the torturous death camps, yet their minds were on Hashem, on emunah.
I recently read an amazing story in the wonderful set of seforim on emunah and bitachon called “Ki Ata Imadi.”
“When I was a young bochur,” related Rav Shlomo Zilberstein, rosh kollel of the Gerer Kollel L’Horaah of Bnei Brak, “the brother of the Belzer Rebbe, Rav Mordechai of Bilgorai [father of the current Belzer Rebbe], saw me and called me over. ‘You are a Gerer bochur,’ he told me. ‘I want you to know that during the churban of Europe, the Gerer bochurim were mekadeish Sheim Shomayim.’
“‘Let me tell you a story,’ Rav Mordechai told me.”
During the war, I was on the run together with my brother, the Belzer Rebbe. We were always running and hiding, trying not to get caught by the Nazis, who were looking for us. They especially wanted to catch the Belzer Rebbe, whom they knew was one of the Jewish leaders. Once, we fled to Krakow and, as we were walking in the street, we heard whispering coming from underground. Following the sounds, we came to the door of an underground bunker. I opened the door and the sight that greeted me stunned me. I could not believe my eyes. There was a whole group of Gerer bochurim learning with enthusiasm. I stood there, rubbing my eyes. Outside, the Germans were ruthlessly torturing, killing, and imprisoning the Yidden without mercy, and here, inside, I saw chassidishe bochurim the way they once looked, learning with such aidelkeit, hasmadah, and hislahavus! It was a scene that was the diametric opposite of the above-ground scene.
As I took in the scene, I observed the oldest bochur closing his Gemara, standing up, closing his eyes, and… beginning to dance. Yes, to dance! All the other bochurim jumped to join in. They were dancing with an otherworldly joy and dveikus, to the extent that just as they didn’t notice me open the door while they were learning because they were learning with such hasmadah and focus, so too, they still didn’t notice me when they were dancing, because they were so attached to Hashem as they danced.
All of a sudden, one of the younger bochurim noticed me standing there and, with fire in his eyes combined with a twinkle of simcha, he exclaimed, “Fun himmel vil men fun unz epes. Lomir dos geben simcha – From Heaven they desire something from us. Let us fulfill that desire by giving simcha!” He grabbed my hand and pulled me into the circle.
How does a Yid dance and sing the words of “Ivdu es Hashem b’simcha” before being shot or gassed to death?
The only way is because once we became avdei Hashem, we gained something inside of us – a flame of emunah, a spark of Yiddishkeit that no goy and no golus can have power over. We are no longer avdei Paroh. Yes, we may have tzaros. Yes, we may be subject to many terrible sufferings of golus. But we are still avdei Hashem and we will remain so for eternity.
The Yidden were given the tools, the ability, to remain attached to Hashem even when in great tzarah.
“That is why,” the Sefas Emes explains, “every morning, in the Pesukei Dezimra, we mention the fact that Hashem saved us from Mitzrayim. Then we go on to sing the Shiras Hayom. Why? Because every day, before we are mekabel ol Malchus Shomayim by saying Krias Shema, before we accept upon ourselves to serve Hashem, we remind ourselves that Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim, that we are no longer avdei Paroh, but are now avdei Hashem!”
The Dual Lesson of Matzoh
I once heard a prominent rov add a profound thought to this: “On Pesach night, we eat matzoh. Now, we know that there are two reasons for eating matzoh. One is to remind us of the terrible golus because matzoh is lechem oni, the bread of a poor man, a poor slave. The second reason is to remember the cheirus, the fact that we got out of Mitzrayim with matzoh on our backs.”
The lesson a Yid must realize is that the seder, the order of the world, is that suffering leads to geulah. Only because the Yidden suffered so much in Mitzrayim did they see the geulah.
That is the dual lesson of the matzoh – that there are difficult times and good times. The difficult times eventually lead to good times. Not only in the macro, in the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim, but in the “micro” of our own lives. We all experience difficulties, but we must believe and know that Hashem will send the geulah from the golus itself, from those very difficulties.
Our avodah in golus is to serve Hashem the same way in good times and in not such good times. A true oveid Hashem doesn’t need to feel spiritual and holy to serve Hashem. I learned from Reb Sholom Mordechai that a true oveid Hashem has emunah even in the bad times and doesn’t change just because he is going through a hard time. He tries to daven the same, to serve Hashem the same way, to do chesed the way he always did in good times, and to have good middos and act like an ehrliche Yid acts even when things are hard.
There is no golus dark enough to take us away from being avdei Hashem.
That is truly a reason to sing Hallel this Yom Tov!