In the “parsha” - Torah portion - that we chant on this Shabbos, we begin the story about our exodus from the land of Mitzrayim (Egypt). Mitzrayim does not just refer to a geographical location, as the root letters of this word spell metzar - a term which refers to a state of distressing confinement. To be in “Mitzrayim” is to be in a place of confinement - physical and/or spiritual. In this week’s parsha, the Compassionate One conveyed to Moshe (Moses) the following message concerning our liberation from this place of confinement:
“Now I have come down to rescue them from the hand of Mitzrayim and to bring them up from this land to a good and expansive land, a land of milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8).
According to Rabbeinu Bachya, a noted Sephardic sage and biblical commentator, the words, a good and expansive land, allude to the following deeper meaning: The goodness of the land is the Torah, as the Compassionate One said, “For I have given you a good teaching, do not forsake My Torah” (Proverbs 4:2). The expansiveness of the land refers to each mitzvah of the Torah, as regarding each mitzvah, King David prayed, “Your mitzvah is very expansive” (Psalm 119:96).
When we study the Torah in the Land of Israel, we experience the goodness of the Land, for as we discussed previously, the Divine Teaching makes us aware of the life-giving potential of the Land. When we fulfill each mitzvah of the Torah in the Land of Israel, including the various mitzvos which relate to the Land, we experience the expansiveness of the Land. In what way is each mitzvah expansive? I found one answer in the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. He explains that the Divine path of mitzvos embraces the life of human beings and nations “in all the variety and multiplicity of their circumstances, relationships, and problems that constantly confront them” (Commentary to Psalm 119:6). In other words, our service in this world is not narrowly confined to just one area of human life. The Torah path liberates us from this place of confinement, as the mitzvos and their halacha embrace the totality of human life. In this way, all of our existence becomes filled with sacred purpose.
The sacred purpose of our creation is to serve the life-giving purpose of our Creator. In addition, the more we are free to serve, the more we fulfill our potential as human beings who are created in the Divine Image. In this spirit, the Chofetz Chaim describes our ability to emulate the ways of Hashem – the Compassionate One – in his book, “Love of Lovingkindness”:
“Scripture records (Genesis 1:27) that ‘God created the human being in His image.’ The commentators take the statement to refer to His attributes. He gave the human soul the capacity to emulate the attributes of Hashem, the Blessed One - to do good and act with lovingkindness with others, as Scripture states: ‘Hashem is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works’ (Psalm 145:9), and ‘He gives food to all flesh, for His lovingkindness endures forever’ (Psalm 136:25).”
The above insight can help us to understand the following Divine message to Pharaoh: “Let My people go that they may serve Me” (Exodus 7:26). The Liberating One desires to give us the freedom to become truly human through serving the Divine purpose in every area of our existence. The journey from the distressing confinement of Egypt therefore leads us to the original expansive role of the human being in the Garden of Eden:
“The Compassionate and Just One took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden – l'avdah u'l'shamrah - to serve it and to protect it.” (Genesis 2:15)
The mission to “serve and protect” the Garden is a prototype for all the mitzvos which were given to the People of Israel through the Torah (Tikunei Zohar 55). The mandate to “serve” the Garden is a prototype of mitzvos aseh – the mitzvos which call upon us to engage in actions which nurture and elevate the world, including ourselves. And the mandate to “protect” the Garden is a prototype of mitzvos lo sa'asay - the mitzvos which prohibit actions which damage and degrade the world, including ourselves.
The journey from the distressing confinement of Mitzraim is to bring us to the liberating Land of Service. When this journey is finally completed, we will once again find ourselves in the Garden of Eden:
“For the Compassionate One will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her ruins; He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her wasteland like a garden of the Compassionate One; joy and gladness will be found there, thanksgiving and the sound of music” (Isaiah 51:3).
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen