In Parshat Va’erah we are presented with one of the seemingly strangest pasukim in the entire Torah. In chapter 6, verse13 the Torah says:
וידבר ה’ אל משה ואל אהרון ויצום אל בני ישראל ואל פרעה מלך מצרים להוציא את בני ישראל מארץ מצרים.
The most troubling word in the pasuk is ויצום – vayetzaveim, which the standard translation is “commanding them”, meaning that Hashem is asking Moshe and Aharon to command both Bnei Yisroel and Pharoh to free Bnei Yisroel from Mitzrayim.
We are struck with a very strange question. Why is Moshe commanding the Jewish people to take the Jewish people out of Egypt. Or stated another way, how could slaves be commanded to free the slaves? There are many explanations but I want to share with you one that is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi. The Yerushalmi explains that this pasuk is coming to teach us about the Mitzvah of freeing slaves during the Shemita Year.
This explanation seems to only compound our question. In the midst of Bnei Yisrael’s slavery, having never been given any previous formal commandments, Hashem tells Moshe to tell the people about freeing slaves on the seventh year of servitude? Why that mitzvah? In what way is this something that Bnei Yisrael must know at this point before even the first plague has happened? Ultimately, we are presented with the question, what is the Midrash trying to teach us?
In his commentary on the Torah called the Meshech Chochma, Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen from Dvinsk explains that in Mitzrayim there were Jews that had their own personal slaves. There were Jews that ruled over other Jews. Since slavery was also being practiced by Bnei Yisrael it was necessary for Hashem to give the commandment of Eved Ivri. Hashem also had to show Bnei Yisrael that we don’t allow slavery.
If you take a second look at the pasuk it makes sense that the Jewish people, as well as Pharaoh, were commanded to free their slaves. A collection of Midrashim called the Yalkut Alvichani expresses the ultimate purpose of this commandment – ”in order to become free and release yourselves from subjugation you yourself must stop having slaves”.
In this pasuk the Torah is teaching us an amazing lesson. YOU CAN only ask for FREEDOM if you are willing to provide it for others. People cannot merit freedom if they THEMSELVES ARE MASTERS over other people.
The idea of Yetziat Mitzrayim, and any geulah, is that we want a better world. In order for that to happen we can not simply wait for some miraculous change that makes everything better. The first thing we must do is make sure that we are expecting better from ourselves in the ways that we treat each other.
It is therefore significant that this is the first Mitzvah given to Bnei Yisrael as a people, even though it was well before Yetziat Mitzrayim and even further before Matan Torah. However, on an even more literal level, the first commandment given after Har Sinai at the beginning of Parshat Mishpatim is the mitzvah of not having true slaves. The Torah presents a society where an individual will never be owned against his will for the rest of his life.
This mitzvah of not having true slaves is the first Mitzvah because it represents the foundation that the rest of the Torah is based on. It is what the rest of the Torah comes to achieve. We can see this very clearly in the story in the Talmud about how Hillel responds to a man who asks him to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel response was “what is hateful to you, do not do to your friend”, and then he adds “the rest of the Torah is commentary in helping us achieve this goal”. Slavery is the epitome of not accepting this principle. Slavery is the ultimate expression of power and control over another human being.
I think we see this idea of introspection in order to discover the mistakes we make and the harm we cause others on Pesach, the holiday that reminds us of Yetziat Mitzrayim.
Before we even sit down for our seder to celebrate the redemption we have been involved in a long process of searching and getting rid of chametz. The mystical tradition teaches us that on Pesach we remove what is not good. And what is not good? Chametz! The Rabbis teach that Chametz rises representing when one feels greater than another. In order to achieve the geulah of Pesach we must search ourselves as well to remove the Chametz.
We are in difficult times with many threats, but we must remember the prerequisite for geulah is looking inside ourselves to make sure we are always focused on the principle of treating others like we would want to be treated ourselves.