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Peninei Halakha > Pesah > 01-The Meaning of the Holiday > 03. Spiritual Liberation from Material Enslavement

03. Spiritual Liberation from Material Enslavement

Israel and Egypt are diametrically opposed. Egypt was an extremely materialistic society with a pagan worldview. Israel, on the other hand, is unique with its spiritual and abstract worldview. Thus, only Israel was able to accept the abstract belief in one incorporeal and non-physical God. Consequently, Israel’s relationship to the material world is also pure and refined, and Jews are thus naturally modest and circumscribed in their sexual mores. The Egyptians, on the other hand, due to their emphasis on the physical and their materialistic worldview, were strongly attracted to promiscuity and sexual transgression. The Torah thus commands: “You shall not do like the deeds of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelt” (Vayikra 18:3). The Sages interpreted this to mean that no nation committed deeds more abominable than the Egyptians did (Torat Kohanim ad loc.), especially the last generation that enslaved Israel (based on Maharal’s Gevurot Hashem ch. 4).

Egypt of that period indeed accomplished some amazing material and administrative feats by creating a stable regime, an advanced irrigation system, and a sophisticated economy (in part due to the help of Yosef, Yaakov’s son). However, these material accomplishments were disconnected from the spiritual world and even opposed to it. Their worldview was extremely idolatrous. They did not believe in the existence of an independent, spiritual soul, but thought that the soul is contingent on and subservient to the existence of the physical body. The Egyptians went to great lengths to embalm corpses because they thought that one’s existence hinges solely on his physical substance, even in death, when one was no longer able to move or speak but continued to exist in every other respect. Accordingly, they invested enormous effort in building pyramids, which are glorified cemeteries for the body.

To be sure, the material world has an important place in Judaism as well. However, a worldview based solely on physical existence will necessarily be idolatrous and amoral. This is because all of the paradigms provided by nature are amoral. There is beauty and wisdom reflected in the amazing regularity of the laws of nature, but they do not possess morality. The strong prey on the weak just as the powerful enslave the poor. The pagan worldview, instead of striving toward a higher level, sanctifies material existence with all its brutality and injustice. In contrast, a faith-based and spiritual worldview is characterized by constant striving toward improving the world, fighting evil, and empowering justice. This is how the prophet Yeshayahu described the ultimate redemption and the Mashi’aḥ’s leadership:

But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the land; he shall smite the land with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…the cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down. The lion shall eat straw like cattle…. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. (Yeshayahu 11:4-9)

Thus, the Exodus from Egypt was not merely the emancipation of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. Rather, it was the liberation of all mankind from the chains of materialism. This is why it is so important to delve into the Exodus, to the extent that we are commanded to see ourselves, every year on the Seder night, as though we ourselves left Egypt. We have also been commanded to remember the Exodus every day and every night. To a certain extent, Shabbat and all holidays were established to commemorate the Exodus, for at the Exodus the spirit of man was freed from the bonds of material existence. Since we have not finished liberating ourselves from the bonds of the material world – the chains of the evil impulse and its lusts – from a spiritual perspective, we still need to continue leaving Egypt. Hence, it is a mitzva to delve into the Exodus.

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

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Editor: Nechama Unterman