Rav Mordechai Greenberg
In the beginning of this week’s portion we read about the mission of Moshe: “And I will rescue you from your labor” [Shemot 6:6]. Moshe is told several times, on the other hand, to tell Pharaoh, “Free My nation, and they will serve Me” [7:16]. Did the nation leave a house of slavery just so that they would become slaves again?
In his introduction to the Haggada of Pesach, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook explains that the difference between a slave and a free man is not only one of status or position – that one man happens to be enslaved and another is not. (Olat Re’Iyah volume 2, page 245).
It is possible to find a person who is formally considered a slave but who is really free in spirit. And the opposite is also possible: a man who is free but in essence is a slave, because he is obligated by external factors. For example, consider a man who has great wealth and can do whatever he pleases, without anybody telling him what to do. However, this man does not feel free because of such factors as social pressure, a fear of being criticized by the media, or a desire to find favor with the public. All of his actions are governed by the question, “What will they all say?” Other people might be enslaved by their own lusts which do not allow them any freedom. As opposed to these, there are people who are formally considered slaves to a master or to the government, such as “prisoners of Zion,” but whose spirit cannot be broken and who will not be forced to act against their own conscience.
This, then, is the definition of a free man:
“It consists of the exalted spirit of a man and also of an entire nation which rise up because of this spirit to be faithful to their own internal identity... This is not true for one who is spiritually a slave, for whom the content of his life and his feelings never light up with his own spiritual self but rather does what others think is good and proper, and this takes control over him, whether this is in a formal or ethical sense – and then what is good is only what the other person feels is good.”
This leads us to the outstanding words of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi: “Those who are obligated to time are slaves of slaves. A slave of G-d is the only one who is truly free.” Or, as the sages have written, “The only free person is one who is involved in the Torah.” This is true since the Torah is an expression of the shape of the Jewish soul, and one who is involved in its study lives in a way that corresponds to his own character. And then he is really free.
Rav Kook writes: “The study of Torah – halacha, aggada, pilpul (analysis), and all types of Torah – brings the light into the life of Yisrael, from within our souls... Dedicated study of the Torah engraves onto the soul the trait of Yisrael and its unique structure.” [Orot HaTorah 6:11-12]. When a person studies the mitzvot and performs them, he is living according to his Yisrael-type traits. This makes him free, since he is living in a way that corresponds to his own internal self and remains faithful to it. Thus, the Exodus from Egypt is separation from the external slavery of Pharaoh and moving on to the natural slavery to G-d. And that is what G-d meant when He promised to take us out of the house of slavery of Pharaoh, so that the people would serve G-d on the mountain.