We are not enslaved

I found a fascinating discussion of the idea of being enslaved in my pre-Passover reading which I wanted to share.  The Netivot Shalom in his discussion of the haggadah discusses the idea of what we mean when we say in the haggadah, “If G-d had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharoah.”  The question that is posed is what does it mean to be “enslaved to Pharaoh” as opposed to any of our other exiles, when we were subjugated to different kingdoms and empires.  He answers that the slavery in Egypt was unique in that it was not just an enslavement of the body, but of the mind as well.  We are taught that the people had descended to the 49th level of Tumah and if they had stayed in Egypt longer, they would not have been redeemed.  In other words, the enslavement went beyond physical labor but was a spiritual enslavement as well.  The other exiles, as the Slonimer explains, were merely of a physical nature.  Hence, Egypt we would have remained enslaved if G-d didn’t redeem us, but not in any other exile.

After having read that, I came across the following from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks which echoed this sentiment (p. 14 Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah):

In the Kovno ghetto in the early 1940s an extraordinary scene took place on morning in the makeshift synagogue.  The Jews in the ghettto had begun to realize the fate that lay in store for them.  They knew that none of them would escape, that the work camps to which they would be transported were in fact factories of death.  And at the morning service, the leader of the prayer, an old and pious Jew, could finally say the words no longer.  He had come to the blessing in which we thank G-d for not having made us slaves.  He turned to the congregation and said: ‘I cannot say this prayer.  How can I thank G-d for my freedom when I am now a prisoner facing death?  Only a madman could say this prayer now.’

Some members of the congregation turned to the rabbi for advice.  Could a Jew in the Kovno ghetto pronounce the blessing thanking G-d for not having made him a slave?  The rabbi replied very simply.  ‘Heaven forbid that we should abolish this blessing now.  Our enemies wish to make us their slaves.  But though they control our bodies they do not own our souls.  By making this blessing we show that even here we still see ourselves as free men, temporarily in captivity, awaiting G-d’s redemption.’

Netivot Shalom on Prayer 3

The Netivot Shalom quotes a piece of Gemara based on the last week’s Torah portion, בשלח.  BT Sotah 30a describes how at the splitting of the sea, even the infant on its mother’s knee and the baby breastfeeding, experienced the שכינה and sang out in praise the words זה אלי ואנוהו, this is my G-d and I will glorify Him.   R. Berezovsky discusses how this shows that it is an essential element of the Israelite to feel an innate sense of needing to praise G-d in song, through the use of poetics.  This Gemara also teaches the idea of a sophisticated simplicity.  The infant recognizes the granduer of the divine but as an infant, there is no rationalization.  It is simply “This is My G-d and I will glorify Him.”

Netivot Shalom on Prayer 2

In discussing the concept of prayer being worship of the heart, R. Berezovsky presents a fascinating interpretation of a passage in BT Berachot 8a.  The Talmud states:  “R’ Hisda said that a person must always enter through two entrances and then pray.”   This passage has a few meanings.  Some read this literally, that a synagogue needs two entrances before the sanctuary.  If we look at most synagogues, the sanctuary is not immediately at the entrance of the synagogue.  There is at least one additional door to enter before the sanctuary.  R. Berezovsky reads this passage as referring to two levels a person must achieve before reaching the place of prayer.  The first is to rid one’s mind of all extraneous thoughts, only focusing on our worship of G-d.  The second door is to then work towards unifying and pairing with the divine. Only once we reach those two levels can we truly be praying, which is the worship of the heart.

Netivot Shalom on Prayer

In the modern Hasidic work, Netivot Shalom, R. Shalom Noah Berezovsky, the previous Slonimer Rebbe of Jerusalem, discusses the concept of how asking for our needs can be considered part of תפילה.  His question is predicated on the equation of prayer with service of the heart (עבודה שבלב).   If we are serving G-d through our words, it would seem antithetical to be asking G-d for our needs.

R. Berezovsky argues that part of prayer, based on the R. Chaim of Brisk’s famous essay on Rambam’s view of prayer, is to be focused on standing before G-d.  When we are truly focused on where our prayers are directed, we bring about a connection between ourselves and G-d.  As such, when we are pouring our hearts out the G-d, we are connecting to G-d, for we are recognizing that it is only G-d that can truly provide for our needs and remove our troubles.