By Shlomo Riskin
“…God made the people take a roundabout path, by way of the desert…” [Ex. 13:18].
Having observed the Passover seder just one week ago, we would do well to reflect back on that experience now in order to glean new insights for everyday life. For example, why did we recline while eating matzah? In what I believe is a teaching that captures the essence of Passover, our Sages state that on Passover Eve, “…even a pauper should not eat until he reclines, and he should be given not less than four glasses of wine, even if he is so poor that he eats by means of the community charitable fund” [Mishna, Pesachim 10:1].
One night a year, even the destitute throw off the shackles of their misery and feel as if they, too, have been freed from Egypt. They, too, celebrate this festival, which speaks of a nation of slaves transformed into a free people. And all of us on the communal ‘tzedaka committee’ must make sure that every last Jew, no matter how poor he or she may be, shall be given the opportunity to recline like the most free of people.
Fascinatingly, our Mishna’s concern that even the poorest recline is based on a Midrashic comment to a verse in Exodus, where we read that when Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go, “…God made the people take a roundabout path, by way of the desert…” [Ex. 13:18].
The Hebrew word for ‘being made to take a roundabout path’, ‘vayasev,’ has, curiously enough, the same root of the Hebrew word ‘reclining’ (yesev). The Torah explains that God takes the Israelites on a roundabout path because taking the most direct route would have caused the Hebrews to pass through land of the Philistines. This act could have provoked an aggressive nation who might very well have attacked and frightened the Israelites into retreat.
Despite having witnessed the fall of the Egyptian empire, the miracles of the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Reed Sea, the Israelites are still frightened to wage war. God knows that they are still slaves at heart. One of the manifold tragedies of slavery is the psychological impact on the victim whereby he believes himself to be worthless and incapable of fighting for his rights.
Indeed, Moses learns this lesson after he slays an Egyptian taskmaster for beating an Israelite, an act he had probably hoped would incite and inspire the Hebrew slaves to rise up against their captors and demand their freedom. The very next day, when he tries to break up a fight between two Hebrews, they taunt him for having killed the Egyptian. Instead of hailing Moses as a hero who risked his own life to save a fellow Jew, they deride him. Slavery corrupts captor and captive alike.
If power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then powerlessness corrupts most of all. A magnificent post-Holocaust Australian play, The Edge of Night, has a former Kapo declare: “There were no heroes in Auschwitz; there were only those who were murdered and those who survived.”
A slave feels helpless: uncertain of his ability to obtain food, he becomes almost obsessed with the desire for a piece of bread – almost at any cost. From this perspective, the desert possesses not only a stark landscape, but also a stark moral message concerning the transformation of an enslaved Hebrew into a freed Hebrew.
The manna, which descended daily from heaven, was intended to change the labor camp mentality of greedy individuals in Egypt into a nation in which “…the one who had taken more did not have any extra, and the one who had taken less did not have too little. They gathered exactly enough for each one to eat…” [ibid., 16:17-18].
The Haggadah begins, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and join celebrating the Passover offering.” This is more than just generous hospitality; it is fundamental to Jewish freedom; the transition from a frightened, selfish and egocentric mentality of keeping the food for oneself into a free and giving mode of sharing with those less fortunate.
Now we understand clearly why the Midrash connects ‘reclining’ with a ‘roundabout’ path. Far beyond use of the same root, the very purpose of this path is intended to purge the state of mind that still thinks like a slave, frightened not only of Philistines, but of another mouth who one fears is always waiting to take away the little bit that one has. Therefore, it is when we give so that others, too, may have and thus feel free, that we demonstrate in a most profound way that we are no longer slaves, but are truly free.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.