[but not quite a Shabbat Hagadol Drasha]
(this drasha owes a lot to Ben Greenberg's Pesahh as a Liberation Imperative article and shiurim; this is also the first drasha i ever gave where i actually told people to 'get off their encounter-suited butts' and do something. and i reformatted it out of poem-style into prose-style for ease of reading in response to previous comments)
During the course of the סדר, we recite a משנה from מסכת פסחים that contains רבן גמליאל's list of the basic obligations of the Seder Night.
And he says that aside from the content of the Seder — the mention of פסח מצה and מרור without which one's obligation to retell the story of יציאת מצרים has not been fulfilled — the entire enterprise of telling the story of the Outgoing from Egypt boils down to one basic מצוה, one underlying obligation: בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עמצו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים. In every single generation, one is obligated to see themself as if they, personally, came out from Egypt.
And he bases this on a verse in the Torah, שנאמר — והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר, בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים. Because it says, “You will tell your children on that day, saying: ‘It was because of this that God acted on my behalf when I left Egypt’.”
I, myself — I left Egypt. I was taken out of מצרים. I was rescued from slavery by God, with symbols, wonders, miracles and awe.
חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים.
And there's another version of this משנה. According to some traditions, רבן גמליאל didn't say that one is obligated לראות את עצמו to see themself — but להראות את עצמו to
In every single generation we are obligated to show ourselves — to demonstrate practically — that we, personally, were rescued from slavery by God.
But what does that mean? What does it mean לראות to see ourselves, or להראות to show ourselves, as if we personally left מצרים?
What could it mean to have left Egypt ourselves?
Does it mean the סדר? The long, luxurious philosophical meal, reclining around the table and telling stories between courses?
Does it mean the Sephardic custom of wrapping מצה and holding it on our shoulders,
while walking around the room in imitation of בני־ישראל trekking through the wilderness?
Maybe to answer this question we should look back at the תורה.
What does the תורה tell us — not about the experience of slavery... but the memory of slavery? Not about leaving Egypt... but about having left Egypt?
According to the תורה, many of the מצוות that we are commanded are somehow
consequences specifically of יציאת־מצרים.
God tells us that we are obligated to engage in commerce in an honest fashion, and then self-identifies as ה' אלקיכם אשר הוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים God who took you out of Egypt.
A false prophet is put to death for inciting disloyalty against “God who takes you out of Egypt and redeems you from slavery.”
The ציצית that we put on our four-cornered garments, and the third paragraph of שמע
which describes them that we recite twice a day — all because God is the God who took us out of מצרים.
And there are many more מצוות written in the תורה and associated with Egypt than just those few.
There are the four times when the תורה warns us against oppressing the גר — the stranger, the convert, the immigrant — כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.
And in פרשת משפטים it goes further — ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר it says, you understand their soul. You know what it's like to be a stranger, to be powerless, to be exploited and abused.
And so the תורה tells us, don't oppress the strangers in your midst, don't exploit or abuse them — protect them!
Four times we are commanded to protect the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt.
And another five times when the תורה reinforces particular מצוות by commanding us to observe שבת; to help an indentured servant regain self-sufficiency; to share our holiday celebrations with the less-fortunate; to seek justice for the stranger and the orphan; and to leave produce in the fields for the poor to take themselves — why? וזכרת כי עבד היית ב(ארץ) מצרים.
So that you will remember that you were a slave in Egypt.
You were oppressed, so don't oppress others.
You were exploited, so protect others from exploitation.
You were downtrodden, so lift others up.
Rav Soloveitchik explained that “without the experience of slavery, we would have remained unexposed to suffering, emotionally vulgar and insensitive.” The slavery experience is the root of Jewish morality, and that is why the תורה invokes שעבוד מצרים
and the memory thereof “whenever it speaks of our duty to respect the feelings of others, particularly the lonely and defenseless... Had we not been in Egypt,” he continues, “had we not felt the pain caused by the whip, we would not have understood the divine law of not oppressing the stranger or the law of loving one's neighbor.”
This is what God did for you when you went forth from Egypt. וזכרת כי עבד היית במצרים Remember that you were a slave. That is the obligation of the Seder Night. In every generation, עשה ה' לי God did it for me — for you — when God rescued us from slavery.
And although the הגדה makes a point of emphasizing — אני ולא מלאך, אני ולא שרף, אני ולא השליח it was God who rescued us, not an angel, and not the messenger — we know that God did not do it alone.
Why did the Creator of Worlds pick משה רבנו as the spokesman and the enactor of divine justice and divine mercy?
רש"י explains that when משה first went out to his people, a ‘Prince of Egypt’ as we say today, going out to encounter his enslaved brethren, he did it to look and to see and to feel their pain. And when he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite, he killed the abuser
and rescued the slave.
That act of defense set a pattern of intervention.
Next, משה saw two Hebrews fighting with each other, and he intervened to protect the weak from the abusive strong.
At this point it became clear to him that his first intervention wasn't as secret as he had tried to keep it, and פרעה tried to punish him, so he fled to מדין, where he rescued יתרו's daughters from the herdsmen who attacked them.
נחמה לייבובֿיץ theorized that “had we only been told of the first clash, we might have doubted [...] his motive.” Maybe משה only intervened because it was one of his own people being beaten by the oppressor?
But then he attempts to protect an Israelite from another Israelite. No Egyptian taskmasters involved.
And then, she says, “came the third clash, where both parties were outsiders — neither brothers, friends nor neighbors.” And yet, as נחמה לייבובֿיץ points out, משה's “first deed on arriving in the land of his forced exile after having risked his life to protect the defenseless [—] was to repeat his action and champion the weak again.”
And why did he do it? How did משה רבנו start on his path of intervention, that very first time? The תורה tells us וַיִּפֶֿן כֹּה וָכֹֿה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ. He looked around, and saw no one — and רבי יהודה explains in מדרש ויקרא רבה:
ראה שאין מי יעמוד ויקנא לשמו של הקב"ה.
משה looked around to see if anyone else would stand up and take action on behalf of the honor of God, but no one would — so he stepped up himself.
And he did it once, again, and three times — no matter who was involved.
משה arrived in מדין and rescued יתרו's daughters, bringing justice to the untamed grazing land.
And in return, when יתרו arrives at the wilderness encampment of בני־ישראל at Mount Sinai, having heard about the wonders of יציאת־מצרים, what does he do? He ends up instituting a system of justice based on fairness and honesty — just as God commands us to deal honestly in commerce and measurements in consequence of the Exodus.
יתרו responded to God's great act of emancipation, liberation and justice with one of his own, on a smaller scale.
When רבי חמא ברבי חנינא in מסכת סוטה explains that we are obligated to ‘walk in God's ways’, all the specific actions he lists are acts of חסד and רחמים, of kindness and mercy.
Just as God clothed the naked, so must we clothe the naked.
Just as God visited the sick, so must we visit the sick.
Just as God comforted mourners, so must we comfort mourners.
Just as God buried the dead, so must we bury the dead.
So what does it mean —
וזכרת כי עבד היית בארץ מצרים,
חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים —
we are obligated to remember and to see ourselves as if we ourselves came out of Egypt?
It means חייב אדם להראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים — We are obligated to demonstrate that we ourselves came out of Egypt!
Just as God brought us out from slavery to freedom, so must we bring others out from slavery to freedom!
Today, in the year ה'תשס"ט, in the year 2009, there are about 27 million human beings
enslaved around the world.
27 million people is twice the number of individuals who were removed from Africa during the entire 250-year period of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. There are more people enslaved today than there were at any previous time in history.
‘Enslaved’ doesn't just mean ‘worked hard’.
It doesn't just mean ‘paid less than they deserve’.
It means literal slavery — one person completely controlling another person, through violence or the threat of violence, for the purpose of economic exploitation, and only paid with enough food to survive.
And over the past 4000 years of human history, across societies and cultures, the average price of a slave has been valued at the cost of between 4 to 8 oxen. Ten years before the Civil War in the United States, the price of an average slave was equivalent to about 6 oxen, or the price of a house. Think about that — the price of a house. Today, though, the average price of a slave is only 90 dollars. And just like anything else, when human beings become cheap, they become expendable.
27 million people without the freedom to walk away — even if it were only into a worse situation.
When משה first goes to פרעה, instead of listening to his divine message, and releasing בני־ישראל, the King of Egypt intensifies their labor, and worsens their oppression.
משה turns to God in frustration or despair, and asks
לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָֿה לָעָם הַזֶּה לָמָּה זֶּה שְׁלַחְתָּנִי
Why have you made it worse for these people?!
Why did you even send me?!
וּמֵאָז בָּאתִֿי אֶל פַּרְעֹה לְדַֿבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָֿ
From the time that I came to Pharoah to speak in your name,
הֵרַע לָעָם הַזֶּה וְהַצֵּל לֹא הִצַּלְתָּ אֶתֿ עַמֶּךָֿ
it's just gotten worse for them
and in no way have you rescued your nation.
In מדרש שמות רבה, we see רבי עקיבא imagining משה not raising his hands in weakness and casting words at Heaven, but actually challenging God and holding God to God's promise — ‘You haven't rescued your people. And I know that one day you will — אבל מה איכפת לך אלו הנתונים מתחת לבנין? but don't you care about those right now who are crushed [to death] underneath the construction?!’
Other מדרשים describe how slaves would drop dead in the middle of their labor; how the Egyptians would wedge Israelites and Israelite babies between the slabs of their edifices; how children would be born in the mudpits where clay was mixed and end up integrated into the bricks with which their parents built cities for their masters.
‘There are human beings suffering right now’ — משה reminds God — ‘What are you doing about it?’
עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים
We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt and God took us out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm...
We are free.
Slavery is just a memory.
Exodus is just a memory.
וזכרת כי עבד היית,
כי גרים הייתם
God judged your oppressors,
so act with justice and honesty.
you were once strangers,
so protect the weak and vulnerable.
you were once a slave,
so release the oppressed.
At our סדרים we reimagine ourselves as if we, personally, were rescued from מצרים.
But the תורה tells us that if we really want to show that we ourselves were rescued from מצרים, we can't just sit around our dining room tables telling stories — just as God freed us from slavery, so must we too work to free others, as well.
What do we
care about those human beings who, just as our ancestors were, just as we were, right now are being “crushed [to death] underneath the construction”?
What are we
doing about it?
Free The Slaves
Task Force on Human Trafficking [in Israel]
Vital Voices's How to Recognize a Trafficking Victim