Thursday, February 5, 2009

Parshat BeShalach - Who is free and who is a slave?

One of my favorite divrei Torah of the Ishbitzer Rebbe from the Mei HaShiloach appears in Parshat BeShalach. The Parshah is discussing the journey that B’nei Israel takes from Mitzraim to the famed Yam Suf. The Torah states that HaShem did not want B’nei Israel to travel on the Plishtim road, which is the faster route to Eretz Israel. Instead they marched in a zigzag pattern making various stops along the way to Yam Suf. One of the cities that they camped near was called, “Pi HaCherut” which is translated as: The Entrance to Freedom. (Shemot 14:2)

In the next pasuk, Paroh realizes that he has allowed all of B’nei Israel to escape from Mitzraim and describes them as, “crazy in the desert.” He then girds his loins, and takes his army to chase after B’nei Israel which brings us to Kriat Yam Suf.

The Mei HaShiloach explains that this place was called Pi HaCherut because it was a city dedicated to hedonism. (Not unlike modern day Las Vegas. Although the phrase, “What happens in Pi HaCherut, stays in PiHaCherut,” doesn’t really flow.) The Mei HaShiloach continues and states that Paroh’s observation that B’nei Israel are, “crazy in the desert,” does not refer to their circuitous march. Rather this phrase refers to the contrast between the inhabitants of Pi HaCherut and B’nei Israel.

B’nei Israel have already begun the process of accepting the yoke of Torah and Mitzvot. They have already begun to limit their choices in life - for example, they will only eat kosher food, and they will not practice adultery. B’nei Israel are crazy when compared to the population of Pi HaCherut. Why would anyone willingly choose to deny themselves physical pleasure?

The Mei HaShiloach emphasizes that in reality Paroh’s observation is completely wrong. The former slaves, B’nei Israel, are now showing their true freedom because they can choose what actions to take in life. Whereas, the free inhabitants of Pi HaCherut are actually slaves to their own physical desires.

I first read this piece by the Mei HaShiloach over ten years ago, but this powerful message has stayed with me since. True freedom is not an expression of freedom of action; true freedom is an expression of choice. Similar to the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot:

איזהו גיבור? הכובש את יצרו.
Who are strong people? Those who can control their passions.

Shabbat Shalom

Photo Credits -


  1. Reb Yaakov,

    Nice blog! You remind me a bit of myself. :-)

    Check out also the Meor Einayim on last week's parsha on the idea of bechira also. Except he takes it a step further. Not only does bechira not mean "being free to do what you want," it also does not mean freedom to choose what is right over what is wrong. Rather, it means that after one has achieved the level of Daas, such that he can then discern between good and bad, that he is able to choose/select the good from the bad in the natural or mundane aspects of life.

    When it comes to learning Meor Einayim, as you said in another post, "get ready for a mind-altering experience"!

  2. Hey also look at the sod yesharim leil 7 shel pesach 27 where he expands this idea even further...

  3. The "he" of the Sod Yesharim is the grandson of the Mei HaShiloach, R. Gershon Chanoch. I found the sefer at -