Body and soul: real meaning of freedom

Rabbi Douglas Zelden

By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Chol Hamoed Passover – Exodus 33:12-34:26

We are in the midst of one of the most auspicious times in the Jewish calendar, known as Z’man Cherutenu – The time of our freedom. Many of us have been studying and reviewing the tremendous amount of laws and customs associated with this holiday since Purim ended a little over a month ago, but this week many of us spent two nights reading from a most interesting book. The book has no author on the cover, and has been read over and over from cover to cover by Jewish people for centuries. I am, of course, speaking of the Haggadah.  There are so many lessons and insights in the Haggadah, that we can learn from. One of my favorites is what seems to be a contradiction where the Haggadah says,  “Had the Holy One, Blessed be He, not taken our forefathers out of Egypt, then we and our children and our children’s children would remain subservient to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

First of all, the Pharaohs of Egypt, as well as the ancient empire known as Egypt, are long gone, so it is unlikely that the Jewish people would have remained as servants in Egypt even had the Exodus never occurred. But in addition, if we do not wish to set this passage aside, which we of course would not, then it appears to contradict a central element of traditional Jewish thought which teaches us that the entire world was created for Torah, to permit us to pursue spirituality and to come closer to Gd. Without Torah, the world would lack purpose.

So according to the Midrashic legend, Gd created the world with a condition in mind; “If Israel does not accept my Torah, then I will return all of creation to “tohu vavohu”, referring to the initial state (“without form and void”) mentioned at the beginning of the book of Genesis. So had G-d never removed us from Egypt, then the Torah would never have been given, and the world would have quite literally come to an end! If so, then both Pharaoh and Egypt would have ceased to exist, along with the Jews.

I once heard this explanation at the Seder table which is that “tohu vavohu” is not simply the absence of anything, but is rather is a creation of its own, a state of being before development. Had Israel not accepted the Torah, then the world would have returned to “tohu vavohu” in order to emerge again, but not as a place for Torah.

That world, would be a “bad” world, as it were, dominated by the Gashmiyut, physical, without opportunities for Ruchniyut, spiritual growth and development, and it would lack approaches to the ultimate good found in Gdliness and Torah. So although human souls would exist in that world, they would have no opportunity for spiritual growth or selfperfection.

This is precisely the environment that Pharaoh sought to create for the Jews in Egypt, oppressing them with physical work and leaving them no time for other pursuits. So although those forces might appear wearing different hats, they would still dominate the Jews today had we not left Egypt. This is what the Haggadah means, that “we and our children and our children’s children would remain subservient to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

Besides this outlook on the Haggadah and our world, this explanation should help us to appreciate and focus upon the opportunities that we have. We should not be so overwhelmed with physical work that we have no time for the spiritual. We can and must find opportunities to pursue G-dliness, Torah study, Tzedakah, and the doing of good deeds, even in our busy lives.

Pesach is an especially good time for growth and change.  “In each generation, every person is obligated to see himself as if he went out from Egypt, as it says in the Torah, “you shall tell it to your sons on that day, saying “because of what Hashem did for me during my departure from Egypt.”‘  Not only our forefathers did the Holy One, Blessed be He, redeem from Egypt, but even us He redeemed with them.”  Our Sages taught: Pesach offers us the opportunity to break free of whatever bonds have held us until now, and to grow beyond all limitations.

May we all take advantage of all our opportunities for growth, those that we find on Pesach, and those offered every day of the year, and may those proper choices lead us all to celebrate this holiday next year in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Doug Zelden is Rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah (Orthodox) in Chicago, chaplain for Home Bound Hospice, and hosts the weekly TV Show “Taped With Rabbi Doug” (

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