Post-Pesach Ponderings: Why The Obsession With Leaving Egypt?

An Age-Old Obsession
The Jewish people seems to be obsessed with Yetziat Mizraim – the Exodus from Egypt.   We mention it twice daily at the end of the Kriat Shema.  In halacha, it also defines the mitzvah of Kiddush on both Shabbat and Yom Tov.

Telling the story is of course the focal point of Seder night.  Now that we’ve put our dishes, pots and pans away for another year, let’s think: what are we supposed to “take home with us” from our experience? What is Yetziat Mizraim really all about?

Well, Well, Well !
Bereishit Ch. 26 records the cryptic story of our forefather Yitzchak digging a series of wells.  Each well that Yitzchak digs is “challenged” by the shepherds of Gerar.

The shepherds of Gerar disputed with Isaac’s shepherds, claiming that the water was theirs. [Isaac] named the well Challenge (Esek), because they had challenged him.  They dug another well, and it was also disputed. [Isaac] named it Accusation (Sitnah)

This leads Yitzchak to dig a third well:

He then moved away from there and dug another well. This time it was not disputed, so he named it Wide Spaces (Rechovot). ‘Now God will grant us wide open spaces,’ he said. ‘We can be fruitful in the land’.

Ramban wonders why the Torah offers such a lengthy account of the wells when there seems to be no benefit nor any great honor to Yitzhak in that he and his father did the identical thing.  He concludes:

However, there is a hidden matter here since Scripture’s purpose is to make known a future matter. A well of living water alludes to the House of God which the children of Yitzhak will build. This is why Scripture mentions “a well of living waters”, even as it says: “A fountain of living waters, the Eternal.” He called the first well “Esek” (Contention), which is an allusion to the First Beit haMikdash, concerning which the nations contended with us and instigated quarrels and wars with us until they destroyed it. The second well was called “Sitnah” (enmity), a name harsher than the first. This alludes to the Second Beit haMikdash, which has indeed been referred to by this very name: “In the beginning of his reign, they wrote sitnah against the inhabitants of Yehudah and Yerushalayim.”  And during its entire existence they were a source of enmity unto us until they destroyed it and drove us from it into bitter exile.

The third well he called Rechovot (“spacious”). This is a reference to the “Future House”, which will be speedily built in our days, and it will be done without quarrel and feud, and God will enlarge our borders, even as it says: “And if Hashem your God enlarges your border…” (Translation by Yitzchak Etzshalom of

Drawing on the principle of “the deeds of the fathers are a sign for the children”, Ramban sees the events as foretelling the ultimate construction of the uncontested third Bet Hamikdash.  The widening of the borders of Eretz Yisrael during messianic times is that which awards the third well the name “Rechovot”.

Yet this seems to beg the question:  Though Messianic times will be characterized by an expansion of Israel’s borders, what is the connection per se between the construction of the third Temple – and the concept of roominess?

The Beit Hamikdash: Its Dimensions Defy Logic
Pirkei Avot records ten ongoing miracles that took place in the Beit Hamikdash. One of those miracles was: “When the (worshippers) stood, they were cramped, but when they bowed and prostrated themselves, they had (plenty of) room…”

What is the significance of this miracle? What specifically connects this miracle to theTemple?

The Torah tells us that the words of the Torah were carved onto the tablets.  Our sages interpret this verse to mean that only a person engaged in Torah study achieves true freedom.  The conclusion is based on a common root: the Hebrew term for carved (harut) shares the same root as the Hebrew term for freedom (herut).

Problem: This drasha seems to fly in the face of reality:  The deeper one enters into Torah study, the more complex and nuanced the legal discussions:  Translated into practice, the reams and reams of detail introduced by indepth Torah study simply expand the scope of observance into every nook and cranny of Jewish life.  In fact, with their exodus, the Israelites merely exchanged a human master for a Divine one: “They are My servants,” says G-d, “and not the servants of servants” (Gemara, Bava Metziah 10a)

How, then, can our sages declare that the Torah learner is truly free?

Two Types of Service
By deepening our understanding of Egyptian servitude, we can perhaps begin to get a glimpse of the distinction between being a servant of Pharoah and a servant of G-d.

The Torah stresses that our people performed “Avodat Parech” – literally – backbreaking labor – while in Egypt.  Our sages (Talmud Tractate Sotah) explain Avodat Parech in a different way: Israelite men were given women’s jobs while women were given men’s tasks.

Now, while women doing men’s jobs could certainly be referred to as “backbreaking” —  is the opposite really true?  How is a man who performs a less physically stressful woman’s job….  Avodat Parech?

Maharal explains that one who performs a job that conflicts with his nature — finds it oppressive.  So, for example, a man who prefers taking out the trash may find it especially difficult to fold laundry, while a woman who doesn’t mind sewing up a seam in a pair of trousers may recoil at the thought of repair work around the house.

Reflecting on the names of the “storage cities” built by the Israelites – Pitom and Ramses – the Gemara explains how each day, the Israelites would return to work, only to see that the buildings they had constructed the previous day … had collapsed.   Though the work was no doubt difficult, the psychological pain entailed made it “Avodat Parech”.

According to Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, “the region of Pitom and Ramses was a wet, sandy marshland fit for destructionnot construction.  Pharoah hoped that the futility of Jewish efforts would give rise to a sense of inescapable anguish.” Mismatched and purposeless work = emotional strain = “Avodat Parech”.

The Root of the Root
Egypt – “Mizraim” in Hebrew – is not simply a geographical location or a nation.  It is a metaphor for constriction.  Citing the verse in Tehillim 118 –

ה  מִן-הַמֵּצַר, קָרָאתִי יָּהּ;    עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ.

“Out of my straits I called out to G-d; He answered me with great width”

the midrash states: “This verse refers to the Congregation of Israel when it was enslaved with Egyptian bricks and mortar, as it says ‘And they embittered their lives with hard work’.  G-d answered them with width.”

Another midrash expands on this theme:

“Out of the straits” – with the exodus from Egypt.  “He answered me with great width” – at the splitting of the Sea.

At first blush, Egypt is referred to as a “Metzar” – “the straits” – because it was there that we were physically restricted; in contrast, the physical splitting of the Sea is referred to as “great width”.

Our deeper understanding of Egyptian servitude, however, elucidated the psychologically and spiritually restrictive, oppressive reality of Mizraim.  It follows, then, that the “width” of the Sea is a reference to the release of this psychological and spiritual burden.

Width of the Sea
At the height of the Song at the Sea, Israel sang out,

The Eternal’s strength and His vengeance were my salvation;

this is my God, and I will beautify Him, the God of my father, and I will exalt Him.

The term ואנוהו in alternatively understood by Onkelos, as, “This is my God, and I will make Him a habitation“.  In other words, the antidote to the spiritual restrictiveness of Egypt is the creation of a framework for the worship of G-d.  The opposite of purposeless, mismatched physical labor is purposeful, Israel-appropriate worship.  The splitting of the sea marked the shift from Mizraim’s Avodat Parech to an inspired Avodat Hashem.   

Earlier, we noted that in the Temple, “When the (worshippers) stood, they were cramped, but when they bowed and prostrated themselves, they had (plenty of) room…”   We asked: What specifically connects this miracle to the Temple?

Sfat Emet offers the following answer: “Through submitting and bowing (to G-d) they merited a higher level of personal holiness, along the lines of ‘answer me with width…'”  Maharal adds: “…the Jewish people brought width from a place called Rechovot.”

Rav Avraham Alter, in Imrei Emet, develops the concept further:

When each person of those gathered was “standing” – with a sense of self-importance –  they were “cramped”,  they lacked space.  Why? Any amount of space you provide haughty people is unsatisfactory for them.  Bowing, on the other hand, represents humility.  For humble people, anywhere is sufficiently “spacious”

The higher level of personal holiness to which Sfat Emet referred is the quality of humility that flows naturally from one’s decision to submit himself to the G-d of Israel.  The Beit Hamikdash is called Rechovot because it facilitates this spiritual growth; such growth is manifest  in the ample room sensed by worshippers fully prostrating  themselves in the Temple.  Herein lies the true “width” of the Sea referred to by the midrash.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that the three weeks preceding Tisha B’av, the day on which both Temples were destroyed, is called בין המצרים – “between the straits”.  As Jewish dominion over the Temple waned, our connection to the source of religious growth dissipated, our spiritual horizons narrowed.

The concept of רוחב, width, is the companion of חרות, freedom:  By delving into and heeding the nuances of Jewish law, the Jew “discovers his true self” as someone whose every action is in sync with G-d’s will.

So why are we so obsessed with Yetziat Mizraim?

Leaving the straits of Mizraim reflects our striving to continuously reconnect to our national and personal essence as a nation that finds its true freedom and fulfillment in serving G-d.

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