Still Leaving Egypt
Let us examine the Ramban’s opening words to Sefer Shemot.
“Having completed the book of Bereishit, which is the Book of the Creation of the World, and having studied the episodes involving our forefathers, which reflect the history of generations to come, we now begin to examine the development of our people. The book of Shemot specifically deals with the first exile decreed in a prophecy to Avraham (Bereishit 15:13–16) and the subsequent redemption.
Redemption is incomplete until Am Yisrael return to their true home, and to the elevated spiritual status of their forefathers. Indeed, even though our people were freed from physical slavery in Egypt, they were still considered exiles, as long as they wandered the wilderness as a homeless people.
When they arrived at Mount Sinai, and built a Mishkan, which was followed by the Almighty ‘entering’ the camp of Israel, then Am Yisrael returned to the spiritual status of their forefathers, and redemption occurred (at least partially.) This is the reason that Sefer Shemot does not conclude until the building of the Mishkan is complete, and the Shechina (Divine Presence) is dwelling therein.”
The Ramban raises a number of extremely thought-provoking issues. We see the allusion to the concept of “what happened to the fathers is a sign for the sons,” which is an idea he deals with extensively in his commentary to Sefer Bereishit (12:6.) He also clearly states that redemption is incomplete until Am Yisrael is in Eretz Yisrael, together with Torat Yisrael.
In this sicha, I would like to discuss the connection between the Exodus, Har Sinai, and the Mishkan.
Let us first define the exact meaning of freedom, which is often confused with redemption.
On Seder night, we are confronted by the rebellious statement of the wicked son. He sees Judaism and its ‘endless instructions’ as being no less limiting than physical slavery in Egypt. His claims are perhaps justified. If we are celebrating our freedom, why are we inundated with all these regulations and restrictions? Surely freedom means I can do as I feel?
Rabbi Yitzchak Bernstein, my mentor and teacher of blessed memory, explained this matter quite brilliantly:
The Haggadah instructs us to “blunt” the wicked son’s teeth. It is fair to assume that this statement is not to be taken literally; we are simply being told to provide the necessary answers to his questions.
The absolute definition of freedom, according to this ‘enlightened’ son, is to be able to do whatever one wishes, whenever one wishes to do it, i.e. the antithesis of Halacha. The father is therefore instructed to figuratively ‘strike’ the rebellious son. The astonished son asks why he has been struck. The father replies, “Look at your definition of freedom. I felt like hitting you and so I did; I am free to do as I wish – you angered me and this is my response as a free man!”
The father demonstrates that the son’s perception of absolute freedom is actually closer to anarchy. Freedom has its roots in self-control. True freedom is not represented by bread that rises without any limitations, but rather by matzah, a food baked with absolute control. The paradoxical truth is that the more we learn to control ourselves, the freer we become, and freedom becomes far more than being free from coercive limitation.
Indeed, were we to define freedom simply as being the absence of slavery, then the book of Shemot could have concluded in Chapter 15 with the splitting of the sea. However, as the Ramban points out, Am Yisrael’s ultimate freedom from slavery in Egypt is attaining redemption.
Had Am Yisrael left Egypt to be left to their own devices in the desert, their fate would have been similar to so many downtrodden peoples in world history. In the aftermath of revolution and freedom, they either recreated a similar model of the dictatorship against which they had previously rebelled, or they became embroiled in internal argument and war until eventually disappearing off the face of the earth.
Redemption is a transformation; from being slaves to Pharaoh to being servants of the Almighty. Let us again refer to that same section in the Haggadah:
In a further response to the outburst of our rebellious son, we explain to our guests that he would not have been redeemed had he been in Mitzrayim. This statement has always troubled me. How do we know this is true? According to Chazal, we know that many Jews died in the plague of darkness. We also know that the ‘eirev rav’ left Mitzrayim with Am Yisrael, as well as Datan and Aviram, so how can we be so sure that this ‘son’ would not have left Egypt?
I am equally perturbed by the word “redeemed” used in the Haggadah. We state very clearly that “had he been there he would not have been redeemed” – ‘nigal’ – yet we usually refer to ‘Yetziat Mitzrayim’ – ‘coming out of Egypt,’ so why do we not say, “had he been there he would not have come out with us”?
By answering the above questions, we can define redemption more clearly:
If redemption is the transformation from slave to servant, then it must be accomplished in stages. When an individual leaves a country, he may well have physically crossed borders, but habits and culture will remain with him for many years to come.
There were two phases to leaving Egypt. The first stage was the physical exodus from Egypt, which we celebrate on Pesach. On the first night, we rejoice crossing the borders of Mitzrayim, and on the seventh day, we commemorate the conclusion of our physical slavery by reading the Torah portion describing Kriyat Yam Tsuf (the splitting of the Red Sea.)
Yet at this stage, our people are simply ‘freed slaves;’ they do not yet have a derech, a way of life. They do not have a real alternative to the Egyptian culture that has become an integral part of their being. Hence, the moment the borders are crossed we begin a period of seven weeks (reflected in our yearly calendar by ‘Sefirat HaOmer’ – the Counting of the Omer.)
During these seven weeks, a remarkable transformation occurs. The people will try to cleanse themselves of all the negativity of Egyptian culture whilst simultaneously preparing themselves for a new, true way of life – derech HaTorah. Each day we distance ourselves from Mitzrayim, we draw ourselves nearer to Kabbalat HaTorah (Receiving the Torah.)
At the end of these seven weeks, Shavuot represents the last day of Pesach. Chazal refer to it as Atzeret in the same way that Shemini Atzeret is known as the end of Sukkot. Even the name ‘Shavuot’ is a reflection of the seven weeks of preparation that lead up to the great day of Kabbalat HaTorah.
Pesach and Shavuot are thus really one festival. You cannot celebrate Pesach without Shavuot, because wandering in the desert with no real purpose, with no real direction in life, is no cause for perpetual celebration, even though it may be well worth remembering. Similarly, you cannot celebrate Shavuot without Pesach, because you cannot reach Shavuot without carefully following the educational process symbolized by Pesach and Sefirat HaOmer.
Once we understand this, we can appreciate our response to the wicked son, having initially rejected his definition of freedom. Indeed, had he been in Egypt, of course he would have ‘come out.’ All you needed to achieve physical freedom from Egyptian slavery on that awesome night was pack your bags and cross the border. However, he would not have been redeemed.
Redemption is Shavuot! In order to be redeemed on Shavuot, we need to be able to say ‘Na’ase VeNishma’ – ‘we will do and we will hear.’ There must be total commitment to the word of God, whatever it may demand, and irrespective of our ability to truly comprehend the purpose of any given commandment. There has to be an inherent understanding that man can only attain true freedom through adherence to Divine laws.
The rebellious son has clearly stated he is not prepared to accept such a reality – “What does this service mean to you?” When we say he would not have been redeemed, we are simply explaining the direct ramifications had he felt the same way after having left Egypt. He is not the kind of person who would say ‘Na’ase VeNishma.’
So far, we have understood that true redemption did not take place when we left Egypt, but seven weeks later at Har Sinai. However, if this is true, surely the book of Shemot could end with Matan Torah, in Parashat Yitro/Mishpatim?
No! says the Ramban. He tells us that real redemption cannot be fully achieved with a one-time revelation. It can only be accomplished if we transform that revelation into a lifelong reality. If the book of Shemot had ended with the redemption as described at Sinai, we would have been inspired and enlightened, but we would have missed the point.
Redemption, the transformation from human slave to servant of the Almighty, is an ongoing process; it is something that must be internalized and constantly applied.
True redemption, says the Ramban, only occurs once the elation of Matan Torah is transformed into the daily reality of Mishkan. Only then can we conclude Sefer Shemot.
Nevertheless, even the Ramban – who defines Sefer Shemot as the book of exile and redemption – would agree that the redemption is still incomplete as we conclude the sefer. He informed us that there are three components to our idyllic reality: the physically free entity of Am Yisrael, the spiritually enlightened people through Torat Yisrael, and Avodat Hashem as reflected by Matan Torah, Mishkan, and Eretz Yisrael, a return to the Promised Land.
The third component remains unrealized. Indeed, due to the tragic events of Sefer Bamidbar, the people that came out of Egypt were never to fulfill the ultimate goal of building all three pillars of fundamental Jewish existence. It was not until Moshe had passed on, and Yehoshua was leading the new, post-slavery generation, that the ideal of Am Yisrael, Torat Yisrael, and Eretz Yisrael was to be accomplished.
Let us assume that the Beit HaMikdash is the ideal form of Mishkan, and take this idea one step further. We are saddened to observe that the idyllic spiritual reality of Mikdash – a united people living in Israel – has only existed for a relatively short period in our entire history. Indeed, we could reduce it to only three or four chapters in the first book of Melachim during the reign of Shlomo HaMelech.
When we look at our reality over the last two millennia, we have had to suffice with only two of the Ramban’s three components: Am Yisrael and Torat Yisrael. In our days, we have merited the great miracle of Shivat Zion, a return to Zion. It is an incredible gift and an unparalleled honor to live during such times, but we cannot be complacent. Am Yisrael’s return to Eretz Yisrael is simply not enough.
It is not even enough to celebrate the Torat Yisrael that exists amongst our people today. We cannot be satisfied for there is a much greater goal. We must aim for the elevated spiritual reality of our forefathers. True redemption cannot be achieved by a people in the wilderness, (even if they do enjoy Divine Revelation on an almost daily basis,) because they are not in their homeland. Today too, we cannot consider ourselves truly redeemed from exile until we reach that final goal of the Third Beit HaMikdash. Exile is not only a place; it is a spiritual reality.
The building of the Third Mikdash that will signal the ‘End of Days’ is neither a technical project nor a political issue. It is a religious challenge. All technical and political issues will be swept aside when we are worthy. When we reach the spiritual level of serving God in the most idyllic form, we will finally realize we have left Egypt for eternity.
 This is not a literal translation.
 Interestingly, Mark Twain made this point in ‘Concerning the Jews’: “…The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and the Romans followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished… All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
 The wicked son never really asked a question, he made a statement. Indeed, he may have even walked out of the room uninterested in any answer! We are nevertheless duty bound, both for ourselves and for the other guests sitting around the table, to relate to his comments. Our heartfelt hope is that the rebellious son will eventually open his mind to the ways of Judaism. In the meantime, we must tirelessly search for ways to entice him back to the table.
 See Rashi, Shemot 10:22.
 In truth, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret run parallel to Pesach and Shavuot. In the same way that Pesach deals with our physical release from slavery, Sukkot relates to our leaving of Mitzrayim and our physical existence in the midbar under Hashem’s protection. Shemini Atzeret is parallel to Shavuot and deals with spiritual redemption. It is significant to note that Simchat Torah is almost the natural extension of Shemini Atzeret. In fact, the Da’at Zekeinim Miba’alai HaTosfot (Bamidbar 29:35) suggests extraordinarily that there should have been 50 days separating the first day of Sukkot from Shemini Atzeret in the same way that 50 days separate Pesach and Shavuot, but due to the fact that the winter season begins almost immediately after Sukkot, the Torah had mercy on Am Yisrael, and did not command them to return to the Mikdash during the stormy winter weather 50 days later, hence Shemini Atzeret was juxtaposed to Sukkot.