Declaration of Independence vs. Mesilat Yesharim

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In some Passover Haggados, the question is posed, “When the child asks the Four Questions about the Seder ritual, the father responds, “We were slaves unto Pharaoh.’ How does that answer the child’s questions?” One explanation is that the father is saying, “When we were slaves to Pharaoh, we did not question his orders. We did what we were ordered to do. G-d delivered us from Egypt and He is now our Master, We don’t question his orders. We do as we are told.”

At the Kotel, there are some young men who urge visitors to put on tefillin. One young man was about to do so when his comrades said, “Don’t bother. We’ve tried with him, but he just refuses. He is not religious and just visits here as a national shrine.” Nevertheless, the young man approached the visitor. “Pardon me,” he said, “but aren’t you General X?” The man said that he was. The young man said, “I was in your battalion in the Golan. When you ordered us to take the hill, we thought it was suicide. But, you were the general and we obeyed your orders. Here, there is another General, and we must obey His orders, whether we like to or not.” Without a word, the general rolled up his sleeve and put on tefillin.

Whether it is a general and soldiers, or a king and his subjects, the master’s orders must be obeyed.

Yes, we are Hashem’s children (Deuteronomy 14:1), and we should relate to Him with the love and reverence of a child to a father, but that does not negate our role as slaves. The knowledge that we are Hashem’s children enables us to realize that whereas a human master assigns duties to his slaves for his own benefit, a devoted father has the child’s best interest at heart, and the duties Hashem wishes us to carry out are for our own benefit, not for His.

In the Ten Commandments, G-d made it very clear. “I am your G-d who delivered you from the land of Egypt, from the house of enslavement.” Subsequently, G-d says, “For the Children of Israel are My slaves, whom I delivered from the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 25:55). The only difference is that in Egypt we had no choice whether we wished to be Pharaoh’s slaves or not, whereas with G-d, we voluntarily accept our servitude to Him every day when we say the Shema. We have bechira (free-will) to refuse to accept ol malchus shamayim, but if we do accept it, we are avodim, slaves in the full sense of the word, and we are not free to disobey Him. The Talmud says that by saying the Shema we subjugate ourselves to the “yoke of the Divine rule.” Yes, it is a yoke, very much like that of the ox that pulls the plow.

The Declaration of Independence says that among the “inalienable rights of man are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This is indeed a lofty concept. However, slaves have no inalienable rights. Slaves are obligated to follow the master’s orders. Slaves have only duties. Slaves do not have rights. We do pursue happiness, but we do so because it is a mitzvah, v’hayisa ach some’ach (Deuteronomy 16:15). Failure to serve Hashem with joy is a serious dereliction (Deuteronomy 28:47).

Ramchal begins his epochal Mesilat Yesharim with a chapter entitled “The Obligation of a Person in His World.” This sets the theme for the entire book. If a person has inalienable rights, then he is free, within accepted limits, to decide how he wishes to exercise these rights. If one is a slave and has obligations and duties imposed upon him by a Master, then it is incumbent upon him to know how the Master wishes these duties to be carried out. This is further emphasized in the Talmud. “Nullify your will before Hashem’s will” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4).

A Master wishes that his slaves be well nourished and healthy in order to be in optimum condition to perform their required duties. They should be well rested, because if fatigued, they cannot get the job done. If we see ourselves as slaves of Hashem, then everything we do should be in the interest of carrying out our obligations. We eat, sleep, recreate work and transact because these are essential to our fulfilling our obligations. “Nullify your will before Hashem’s will” leaves no room for pursuits that are not directed to the service of Hashem.

Ramchal would fully agree with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Life, because the Torah says “You shall observe My decrees and My laws which man shall carry out and by which he shall live” (Leviticus 18:5). Liberty, because the Torah says, “Proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants (Leviticus 25:10). Pursuit of happiness, because the Torah says, “You shall be completely joyous” (Deuteronomy 16:15). These are inalienable mitzvos, not rights.

 
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