The Four Slaves — Dvar Torah for Pesach in memory of Niot Watzman z”l

Haim Watzman

In memory of my younger son, Niot, eight years after his death at the age of 20, during Pesach. From the Pesach 2019 issue of Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah sheet of the religious peace movement, Oz Veshalom.

להורדת הגליון של “שבת שלום בעברית”

“The slaves of time are slaves of a slave, only the servant of the Lord is free,” sang Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (in Peter Cole’s translation). The poet is referring to the view that, when they left Egypt, the Children of Israel went not from slavery to freedom but rather from slavery to slavery. In Egypt we were slaves to Pharaoh, and when we left Egypt we became slaves to God. In Egypt we lived under the yoke of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and since then we have lived under the yoke of the commandments given to us by the King of all Kings.

But this account of the Exodus is problematic. The biggest problem is that it contradicts the status of slaves as defined by the Torah and Jewish law. A Hebrew slave is obligated to observe fewer precepts than a free person (a free male, not a female; the gendered nature of Torah obligations is an important issue but not germane to the matter at hand). Furthermore, the view that we remain slaves following the Exodus is a problematic one today, given our revulsion from slavery and our belief that it exemplifies radical injustice. I doubt that any reader of this essay can easily imagine life as a chattel who is unable to come and go as he wishes and who is entirely dependent on the mercies of his master.

In other words, religious Jews who are also modern Westerners and citizens of democratic countries can only feel unease with this depiction of the Exodus. The idea that we are slaves—even if God’s slaves—is simply incompatible with the lives of people who live in law-based states that are ruled not by kings but by elected officials subject to laws and the oversight of the other branches of government, the people, and the media. Our acceptance of authority today presumes our right to criticize, to express doubt, to challenge, and to be active partners in the creation of the norms to which we are subject.

Yet, even today, the concept that we were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and today are slaves to God is very much part of how we think of Pesach and the Seder. I suggest, however, that it is not the approach of the Jewish sages. I learn this from an examination of how the word “slave” is used in the Haggadah.

The word “slave” (‘eved / עֶבֶד) appears about thirty times in the text of the Haggadah, but it does not bear the same meaning everywhere it appears. In fact, it is used in four different ways:

1. To designate pagan worship: “and they worshipped” (in Hebrew, ‘avdu, meaning “served”). The slave in this sense is a person whose beliefs and practices are in error, leading him to worship a false god.

2. Slaves to Pharaoh: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”; “And they set hard labor upon us.” Here the slave is the opposite of a free person, who is forced to perform hard and painful labor.

3. A servant of God and leader of the people: “and they had faith in God and in his servant Moses”; “Your servant David.” Moses and David are cited as leaders who mediated between God and the people through their leadership, legislation, command in war—and through their poetry.

4. The servant of God: “Praise, servants of God, praise the name of God!” These servants—the word is the same one that is elsewhere translated as “slave”—are the people of Israel who praise the world created by God.

These different uses of the word ‘eved, translated as “slave” or “servant,” are distinct in more than just meaning. They appear in the Haggadah as a sequence that tells the history of our nation, and the change that each participant in the Seder undergoes.

The Haggadah’s historical survey begins with the patriarch Abraham who, in his earliest days, worshipped false gods (if we understand the phrase ארמי אובד אבי, which the midrash quoted by the Haggadah deliberately misreads as “An Aramean [Laban] sought to destroy my father [Jacob]” in its simple sense, “My father was a lost Aramean”). We begin the Seder night in just this way, as lost souls who do not truly understand the meaning of freedom.

In the next step in the nation’s history, Pharaoh deprived us of our freedom and who put us to hard labor and tormented us. This is the second step in the Haggadah as well: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” In this section of the Seder ritual, we learn the meaning of being forced to perform labor for another human being.

The children of Israel are rescued by God, with the mediation of his servant Moses, who brings the Torah to the people. This historical period corresponds to the section of the Haggadah that begins with “Rabban Gamliel would say,” which leads us into the performance of the central observances of the evening, the consumption of the Pesach sacrifice (pesach), unleavened bread (matzah), and bitter herbs (maror). Here the Haggadah turns from what happened in Egypt to what we do today to remember our period of enslavement in Egypt. As is well known, Moses does not appear in the Haggadah (actually, he does, once, when Rabbi Yose the Galilean quotes from the book of Exodus, but Moses is not depicted in the Haggadah as the savior of the people). But when we perform the rituals of the Seder, we are observing the Torah that God gave us through Moses, and in that sense we all become emissaries—servants, that is—of God. In other words, we take ourselves out of slavery and into freedom.

The final transformation on the Seder night comes with the recitation of Hallel, the set of psalms of praise that we begin to recite before the festive meal and complete after it. In reciting the Hallel, we become slaves in the final sense of the word, acclaimers of God and his world. “Go forth and learn”: The slave at the Haggadah’s climax is neither a worshiper of foreign gods nor a forced laborer in Egypt. The servants of God do not serve him because they are compelled to or because they are in error, but out of the joy of being free in every sense of the word.

If my reading is correct, why does the Haggadah use a single word, ‘eved, in such disparate ways? If the word means four different things, why not use four different words?

The answer is that the person who sits down to a festive meal in the midst of reading the Hallel is not the same person who began the evening and progressed over the course of the evening through being these four kinds of slave. The person who at the beginning of the Seder at sundown as a slave undergoes a transformation into a free person over the course of the Seder.

This evolution of the use of the word ‘eved, slave, over the course of the Haggadah grants special force to the Haggadah’s declaration that “In every generation one must view oneself as though one had personally left Egypt.” On Seder night, we are commanded not only to remember being slaves in Egypt, but also to reenact the same process that the Children of Israel underwent on their way from slavery to freedom.

Niot’s memory helps Israeli teenagers with learning difficulties through The Niot Project . To learn how to donate, click here.

Previous thoughts on Pesach in memory of Niot:
The Third Child (2018)

Who Walks In? (2017)

The Missing Center (2016)

The Question of Questions (2015)

The Bitterness of Egypt (2012)

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