In an article for Tzav (Shabbat Hagadol) 5773, Rabbi Cherki discusses national and spiritual redemption and their significance in modern times.
In the Hagadda of Pesach the son of the family asks questions two times – “Ma Nishtana” (Why is this night different?), and in the passage which begins, “The Torah spoke with respect to four sons.” Each set of questions has a reply. The answer to Ma Nishtana is, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and our G-d took us out of there.” The answer to the “four sons” is “At first our fathers worshipped idols, and now G-d has brought us close to serving Him.” From the historical point of view, these are two different texts of the Hagadda. This is the subject of the dispute in the Talmud between Rav and Shmuel – whether to reply to the son’s questions with “We were slaves” or with “At first our fathers worshipped idols.”
We can say that the dispute between Rav and Shmuel is about the essence of the redemption from Egypt. Was the main factor the achievement of national freedom, or was the religious aspect of moving from idol worship to serving G-d more important? During the era of the Talmud two parallel versions of the Hagadda existed, and they were combined into one ritual only in the era of the Savor’im, after the Talmud was sealed. The nation of Israel wanted to show that in essence there is no difference between national redemption and spiritual redemption. It is impossible to have one without the other.
However, it was decided to put the response, “We were slaves” first and to follow it with “At first our fathers worshipped idols.” This shows that the first priority must be to achieve national freedom, which will then lead to a release from spiritual slavery, and not the other way around.
A hint of this idea can be seen in the text of the first passage, “We were slaves.” It is written, “Even if we are all wise men, all understanding people, and we all know the Torah – we have been given a mitzva to tell about the redemption from Egypt.” We might well ask: Have we ever seen a case where wise men are exempt from mitzvot, such that it is necessary to emphasize that they are also obligated to tell the story of Pesach? The answer is that we might have thought that the obligation to tell about the redemption exists only for people who suffered greatly during the era of slavery. But perhaps the wise men of Israel, who could console themselves with the study of Torah, did not feel the weight of the oppression and might thus be freed from the obligation to tell about the redemption. The author of the Hagadda warns us not to make a mistake. We can never be truly wise, understanding, and fully knowledgeable of the Torah while we are still enslaved by other nations. It is an illusion to think that there can be true Torah under the authority of the nations, as our sages declared: “When Israel are sent into exile from their proper place – there is no greater waste of time (instead of Torah study) than this” [Chagiga 5b].
Our rabbis instructed us to be involved in the redemption from Egypt to a very large extent. “Anybody who speaks at length about the Exodus from Egypt is to be praised.” This does not only mean to tell at length what happened in the past, but rather to learn the proper lesson from the events, in order to be able to leave behind other types of Egypt. This is what happened with the wise men in Bnei Berak (in the story in the Hagadda). They were involved in the question of leaving their own personal Egypt in which they lived – “all through the night” – referring to the yoke of Roman rule. We learned from them to await our own release from Egypt, which has existed ever since the establishment of the State of Israel.