Outlooks & Insights Parshat Beshalach: Three Days in the Desert
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Beshalach(Exodus 13:17-17:16)

Three Days in the Desert

"I declare that I will bring you out of the wretchedness of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizites, Hivites and Jebusites - to a land flowing with milk and honey.... You and the elders of Israel will then go to the King of Egypt. You must tell him that the God of the Hebrews revealed Himself to us. Now we request that you allow us to take a three day journey into the desert to sacrifice to the Lord our God." (Exodus 3:17-18)

The commentators are puzzled by the fact that when God revealed His plan for the Jewish people, He immediately told Moses of their destiny in the Land of Israel, but at the same time instructed Moses to ask Pharaoh only for permission to leave for three days. Many answers have been proposed to this question (see Ohr Hachaim to Exodus 3:18). We shall offer yet another based on one of the unique aspects of Matzah.

Matzah, the bread of slavery, is at once the symbol of our slavery and the symbol of freedom. In the Passover Haggadah it is both poor bread and the symbol of how God redeemed us in an instant.

It could be asked why a richer, more tasty cake was not chosen as a symbol of our redemption from the bitter slavery of Egypt. The answer is that we did not cease to be slaves with our redemption. As the Talmud (Megillah 14a) says, commenting on the verse (Psalms 113:1), "Praise God, give praise, you servants of God" - "Originally we were slaves to Pharaoh; now we are slaves to God." We did not emerge from slavery to freedom; we remained slaves with a new master.

The Jew is not free. "Frei" is the password of alienation from Judaism. The Jew is the model servant, accepting the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven, and unequivocally yielding to his master, the Master of the Universe, Whom he serves with unswerving dedication. The commentary Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah (on the Talmud - Brachot 9b) explains the law that the blessing of geulah (redemption) must be linked to Amidah, service of the heart. There is for the Jew no hiatus, no free moment between redemption and acceptance of God's yoke.

After our redemption, we continued to dine on the bread of slavery to emphasize that our status as slaves had not changed. Even the good Land that we were given is a land suited to servants, whether they be servants to human masters or servants to the King of Kings. It was first given to Canaan, who himself bears the curse of eternal servitude.

Our freedom is the freedom to be God's servants. And it is this servitude which is the ultimate freedom. The Sages say: "On the Tablets was engraved our freedom. Do not read 'engraved on the Tablets,' but rather 'freedom on the Tablets'." Freedom is total immersion in Torah, total dedication and obedience to God Himself. Only when the Jew is able to express his deepest inner will, the thirst to do God's will, is he truly free. He is no longer a servant whose inner will is suppressed and stifled by the "the yeast in the dough," and figuratively, the Yetzer Hara with its infinite array of desires and lusts that wrench one from submission to God's will.

Subjugation to the nations of the world, whether physical or cultural subjugation, is enslavement, for it suppresses our ability to express our inner will, to come close to God. Redemption from that enslavement is totally God's doing. We are passive objects when God takes us into His jurisdiction. We do not bring our redemption; we graciously and gratefully accept it.

But we must show ourselves worthy of freedom by displaying an understanding of the implications of freedom from outside forces, a desire for the opportunity to subject ourselves to God.

The Ruler of the World did not need permission from Pharaoh to take us out of Egypt. Therefore Moses did not approach Pharaoh with a request to leave Egypt to settle in Israel. But, the Jewish people, then under Pharaoh's rule, had to show that they deserved redemption. That is why they petitioned Pharaoh for three days in the desert to sacrifice to God. The nature of these sacrifices was not clearly defined even to Moses. As he told Pharaoh:

"For we do not know how we are to serve Him until we get there." (Exodus 10:26)

Three days after leaving Egypt, God told the newly freed Jews to return toward Egypt. Return toward Egypt, give up your newly acquired freedom, cease running toward safety and put yourselves in the clutches of your oppressors. Why? Because God wills it. That was the "sacrifice" after three days in the desert - not animal sacrifices, but the giving up of the thing most dear to them, their new freedom. That was the test of their worthiness for redemption.

We stand today on the brink of redemption and are being tested to see if we merit God's redemption. We can safely leave bringing Moshiach to God, but we must merit his coming. Only by intensifying our commitment to Torah and Mitzvot, by dedicating ourselves to serving God in all areas of life, by removing the chametz (leaven) from our hearts, will we successfully discharge our three days in the desert.

Published: January 31, 2004

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