Tag Archives: Slavery

What is Freedom?

This evening we usher in the final day (or two days, in the diaspora) of Pesach. The last day of the holiday commemorates the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea, the point at which they were finally free of Egypt. Pharaoh’s armies were annihilated, and he abandoned his pursuit of his former slaves for good. The Israelites were now completely free.

Or were they?

The message that God instructed Moses to carry to Pharaoh was: “Let my people go so that they may serve me” (Exodus 7:16). The verb that is used is identical to that describing our service to Pharaoh; we were avadim l’Pharaoh and became avadim l’Hashem. Were we really freed from slavery, or did our slavery simply transfer from one master to another Master?

Defining Freedom

There are many ways to define ‘freedom’. The term might mean different things to different people at different times. A Talmudic definition of freedom is the ability to control one’s own time. A slave is told what to do and when to do it (for this reason, Jewish servants were exempt from time-bound mitzvot). A more modern definition of freedom – particularly in our capitalistic world – might be tied to amassing a vast fortune. There is a great deal of truth in this, as the Talmud (Nedarim 38a) tells us that all of our forefathers and prophets were exceedingly wealthy. For a child, freedom might mean staying up past their bedtime, or eating as many sweets as they wanted. For an adult, freedom might be a week off work or spending quality time with family.

To find a singular, all-encompassing definition of freedom, one has to zoom out and find a common denominator. The simplest (and most common) would be to say that freedom is the ability to do whatever a person wishes to do. Indeed, Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of freedom is “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action”. In other words, one is free to act as they wish.

The problem with this definition is that it is difficult to separate from simple instinct. For example, if one suddenly has a desire to consume a large piece of cheesecake, and does so, is this really freedom, or just a submission to their inner compulsion? What if this person is lactose-intolerant and grossly overweight – would eating that cheesecake be an act of freedom, or an act of slavery to their body’s desires?

It appears that we need to refine the above definition of freedom. Instead of phrasing it in the positive – the ability to do whatever one wishes – a better way to look at it might be in the negative: the ability to restrain one’s self from doing whatever they wish, even though they are completely free to do so.

The wise sage Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is the great person? The one who can overcome his inclinations.” (Avot 4:1) Ben Zoma bases this teaching on the words of King Solomon in Proverbs (19:32), “Better is one who is slow to anger than one who is mighty, and [better is] one who can conquer his own spirit than one who can conquer a city.”


Ultimately, it is very easy to say “yes” to one’s self; it is far more difficult to say “no”. The latter is the real test of free will, and often the truest expression of freedom. It is only when a person has developed the ability to overcome their inner instincts and their base bodily desires that they are truly free. Otherwise, although they may not be slaves to a Pharaoh, they are still slaves to themselves.

And so, when God freed the Israelites from Pharaoh’s slavery, He did not simply let them “go free”, but rather, gave them a Torah full of mitzvot, to “serve God”, so to speak. Of course, God requires no service – He is infinite, eternal, needing absolutely nothing at all. When we “serve God”, we are really just serving ourselves.

The mitzvot were given only to refine the individual; to perfect one’s character and to free a person from the confines of their body, making them as Godly as possible. God commanded the people: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). We are meant to be like God, for in God’s image we were fashioned. And this is the key to true freedom, since the ultimate source of freedom is God – who is infinite and limitless – and we are commanded to become like Him – infinite and limitless. The potential is seeded deeply within all of us, for we were all made in God’s image.

Next week, we begin reading Pirkei Avot, the “Ethics of the Fathers”, as is customary between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. One of the most profound maxims in these pages was spoken by Rabban Gamliel (2:4), who reveals the secret to definitive freedom. Every person who is serious about attaining true freedom should meditate upon these words every day:

“Make your will like His will, and He will make His will like your will; nullify your will to do His will, and He will nullify the wills of others to do your will.”

Chag sameach!

How Long Were the Israelites Actually In Egypt?

This week’s Torah reading is Bo, chronicling the final events in the exodus from Egypt. We read about the final three plagues (locust, darkness, and the smiting of the firstborn), the first Passover night, and at last, the liberation of the Israelites. Here, we are told that the Israelites left Egypt after having dwelled there for 430 years (Exodus 12:40). However, Jewish tradition (based on counting up all the years mentioned in the Torah) holds that the Israelites were only in Egypt for 210 years! To further complicate things, God had prophesized to Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years (Genesis 15:13). So, which is it? Were the Israelites in Egypt for 430 years, 210 years, or 400 years? There appears to be a simple answer to this question, and is the one most commonly cited. However, upon closer examination, this explanation breaks down entirely, and the real answer becomes much harder to find.

The Simple Answer

'Departure of the Israelites' by David Roberts (1829)

‘Departure of the Israelites’ by David Roberts (1829)

Let’s begin with the simple answer. Rashi’s commentary on the verse in question is that the Israelites were indeed in Egypt for only 210 years, since this is the sum one comes to when counting the lifespans of Jacob, Levi, Kohath, Amram, and Moses. According to this chronology, the Israelites lived prosperously in Egypt for 116 years. By this point, Jacob and his sons (the original immigrants) had all passed away, and a new pharaoh ascended to power in Egypt. Envious of Israelite prosperity and success, and suspicious of their populous numbers, the new pharaoh began instituting various anti-Semitic laws. Tradition holds that this period of segregation and persecution lasted 30 years, after which the Israelites were formally enslaved. Thus, the Israelites were slaves for 86 years. The year of their enslavement corresponds to the year of Miriam’s birth, hence her name, which literally means “very bitter”. Moses was born 6 years later, and liberated the Israelites when he was 80.

Rashi states that since 400 or 430 years in Egypt is impossible, one must assume that by “dwelling” and “sojourning”, the Torah refers to all the dwellings and sojourning since the time of Abraham. Rashi points out that if one counts back 400 years from the exodus, one comes to the year that Isaac was born. Another 30 years before that was when Abraham envisioned the “Covenant of the Parts”, and received the prophecy that his descendants will be slaves and foreigners for 400 years. Therefore, when the Torah states that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years, it is going all the way back to Abraham’s Covenant, which happened exactly 430 years earlier. And when God told Abraham his descendants would be slaves for 400 years, He literally meant all of Abraham’s descendants, starting with his first son, Isaac, born 30 years later. This explanation seems to work, at least when reinterpreting the definition of what it means to be “enslaved” and what it means to be “in Egypt”.

However, even Rashi is unhappy with this answer. He says that one has no choice but to accept this explanation al karchacha, literally “against one’s will”. He finishes by saying that this was one of the things that the Sages edited when translating the Torah into Greek for King Ptolemy.

(Over two millennia ago, Ptolemy gathered 70 rabbis, put them in separate guarded rooms, and forced them to translate the Torah into Greek. Despite their separation, all 70 rabbis produced the exact same translation, making the exact same amendments where necessary, to make the text more palatable to the Greeks. This text became known as the Septuagint, because of the 70 rabbis. According to Yalkut Shimoni, there were 72 rabbis, and they made 15 changes to the text, one of which is the duration of the Israelites’ dwelling in Egypt.)

The Problem with the Simple Answer

Aside from the fact that the Israelites were slaves for 86 years, not 400, and that the Torah states that they dwelled specifically in Egypt for 430 years, and not elsewhere, there is a much more pronounced problem with the simple answer. If we say that the 430 figure comes from the moment when Abraham first received the prophecy, that means that Abraham got it 30 years before Isaac was born, which means Abraham was 70 years old at the time (since Isaac was born when Abraham was 100). However, the Torah tells us that Abraham only came to the land of Israel for the first time when he was 75 (Genesis 12:4). Sometime after this, he descended to Egypt because of a famine, then returned to Israel. Years later, he participated in the war against the Mesopotamian kings (Genesis 14). It is only following this war that the Torah states, “After these things the word of Hashem came to Abram in a vision…” (Genesis 15:1). And it was in this vision that Abraham received the prophecy of 400 years. It is therefore impossible that he was 70 years old! In fact, the very next chapter speaks of the birth of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son through Hagar, who was born when Abraham was 86. Based on this, some commentaries suggest the Covenant of the Parts happened when Abraham was 85 or 86 years old.

So, we may accept the figure of 400 years starting with Isaac, but where did 430 come from? In lieu of a historical answer, we may have to delve into more mystical literature.

The Metaphysical Answer

In characteristic fashion, the Arizal sees the 430 figure not necessarily as a literal number of years, but as a figure hinting at something deeper. It is well-known that God has two primary names (among many others): the ineffable name of Hashem, which represents God’s kindness, and the name Elohim, which represents God’s judgement and severity. When it comes to the Exodus, God expressed His strict judgement. The Arizal (in Sha’ar HaPesukim) points out that there are five major expressions using the name Elohim with regards to the events of the Exodus. The numerical value of the name Elohim (א-ל-ה-י-ם) is 86. Multiplying 86 by 5, one arrives at 430. This figure, therefore, represents all of God’s severity, which was revealed in this time period. It was only after “430 years” – ie. only after God had fulfilled all of His plans – that the Israelites were finally liberated.

There is one final answer that may be the best of all, allowing us to take the 430 year timespan literally. The full passage in the Torah reads: “And the habitation of the Israelites that dwelled in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years, and it was at the end of four hundred and thirty years, on that very day, that all the legions of Hashem came out of Egypt” (Exodus 12:40-41). The Torah tells us that it was God’s legions of angels that finally left Egypt after 430 years. Thus, 430 years earlier, God had sent his angels to Egypt to prepare the way for the arrival of the Israelites. It was 430 years earlier that God had put His plan in motion. The Arizal might add that the souls of the Israelites destined to be born in Egypt were already dwelling there, so to speak, 430 years earlier. Whereas the Israelites physically dwelled in Egypt for 210 years, their spiritual habitation there – together with God’s Heavenly legions – spanned 430 years.

Beautifully, at each Passover seder we drink four cups of wine, and pour a fifth for Eliyahu. The numerical value of cup (כוס) is also 86. And so, the five cups total 430.


The Flood, the Tower, and Egypt: Why Did the Israelites Have to be Enslaved?

This week’s Torah portion is Miketz, which continues the narrative of Joseph’s meteoric rise to power in Egypt. Two years after Joseph correctly interpreted the dreams of his co-prisoners, the Pharaoh’s servants, he is summoned to interpret the bizarre dream of Pharaoh himself. Contrary to popular belief, it was not that Joseph was the only one who had an interpretation at all. The Pharaoh had his own soothsayers, priests, and interpreters. Rather, Joseph’s dream was the only one that came with a plan of action. Impressed, Pharaoh appointed Joseph to put his plan in motion. And Joseph did not disappoint.

After seven years of bountiful harvests, the seven years of famine began. The people quickly ran out of food. (Rashi comments here that although all of Egypt knew that a famine would come, and the whole population stored food for themselves, they found that what they had stored had rotted away.) Thankfully, Joseph had stored plenty of provisions in the royal granaries. The populace “cried out to Pharaoh” for bread, and Pharaoh told them: “Go to Joseph, and do what he tells you.” Rashi quotes a famous Midrash that says Joseph decreed that anyone wanting to receive food must first be circumcised!

Carved Circumcision Scene from a Temple in Luxor, Egypt, c. 1360 BCE (Credit: Lasse Jansen)

Carved circumcision scene from a temple in Luxor, Egypt, c. 1360 BCE (Credit: Lasse Jansen)

Amazingly, archaeological evidence shows that circumcision was, in fact, common during Egypt’s 18th dynasty (1543-1292 BCE), which is when these events of the Torah would have taken place. Last year, we wrote of the archaeological evidence corroborating the story of Joseph through the historical figure of Yuya. Yuya also lived during the 18th dynasty, around the time of the carved scene depicted here.

History aside, the big question is: why would Joseph want the Egyptians circumcised?

Adam, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel

The bulk of the Arizal’s commentary on this parasha (in Sha’ar HaPesukim) is dedicated to the above question. He presents an incredible answer, and starts with the following:

“Those 130 years before Moses was born were in order to bring down the sparks of the holy souls that were released by Adam, the first man, through his wasted seed during his first 130 years.”

Biblical chronology shows us that the Israelites spent a total of 210 years in Egypt. The Torah also tells us that Moses was around 80 years old at the time of the Exodus. That means he was born 130 years after the Israelite immigration to Egypt. At the same time, the Torah tells us that Adam had his third son, Shet (or Seth, in English), when he was 130 years old.

Many Jewish texts suggest that after Cain had tragically killed Abel, Adam decided not to have any more children. After 130 years, he was rebuked by the wives of Lemech for separating from Eve, and immediately realized his faulty ways. At that point, Adam and Eve had Seth. However, during those 130 years apart, it is said that Adam had wasted his seed. Since the seed contains the potential for life, when it emerges it produces a soul. However, these souls that Adam created over the 130 years had no body to inhabit. Where did they go? The Arizal continues:

“First, [the souls] came into the bodies of the people of the Flood generation, who also wasted their seed… so they were reincarnated once more in the generation of the Dispersion.”

The damaged souls that Adam had created came down into this world into the bodies of the pre-Flood generation. It was incumbent upon them to perform a tikkun, a correction for their souls, accomplished through meritorious deeds and mitzvot. Unfortunately, the damaged souls were drawn to evil, and themselves became very licentious. They perished in the Great Flood, and were reincarnated into the next generation. However, that generation also went waywardly, and built the infamous Tower of Babel.

“Now, they reincarnated once more into those Egyptians. Joseph knew through Ruach HaKodesh [Divine Inspiration] that they possessed those souls from the wasted seed, and therefore decreed circumcision upon them, to begin the repair of their soul roots.”

Kabbalistically, circumcision is meant to be a reparation for sexual sins. Even on the simplest of levels, a man’s circumcision is supposed to constantly remind him that sex is not to be abused or misused. A man is supposed to be in control of his sexual urges, and channel them only for holy purposes: building a loving relationship with one’s spouse, as well as establishing a proper, righteous family. More spiritually, the act of circumcision creates a metaphysical imprint that is meant to repair sins of a sexual nature, not only for the individual, but also on a more elevated, cosmic level.

“…After they were circumcised, their process of tikkun had begun, and they were then reincarnated into the generation of Israelites during those 130 years [in Egypt, before Moses was born]. And they were forced into difficult labour to purify them, especially to correct the sin of the Tower generation, who also built with bricks and mortar.”

The Egyptians that Joseph had commanded to be circumcised ended up reincarnating as the Israelite slaves. It was decreed upon them from Heaven that they should work hard in servitude as a means of spiritual purification. The mechanism of servitude – construction of buildings through brick and mortar – was meant to be a measure for measure retribution: just as they had built the Tower of Babel for evil means, they were now building in order to reverse their previously sinful ways.

Once their purification was complete, these souls were ready for redemption, and thus Moses was born, precisely 130 years into the timeline, just as Adam had initially created those souls over a 130 year period. It is also interesting to point out that the physical father of all these Israelite souls was Jacob, who came to Egypt when he was 130 years old (as we read next week in Genesis 47:9).

The Arizal thus gives us a profound answer, and not only to the question of why Joseph had the Egyptians circumcised. This short passage also explains why the Flood and Tower generations were particularly drawn to evil, why the Israelites had to be enslaved (since God does not decree any undeserved suffering upon anyone), and why Moses was born exactly when he was.

Ultimately, it is said that the generation of Mashiach will be a rerun of the generation of Moses. It is therefore not surprising that the world today is once again mired in sexual immorality and licentious behaviour. May God give us the strength to overcome all those challenges, and merit to see the coming redemption soon.