Parshas Bo describes the final three Plagues and the events that led up to the Jewish people finally leaving Egypt. Chazal tell us that there were four stages of the Redemption from Egypt. This is based on the verse in Va’eira, where HaShem tells Moshe Rabbeinu, “I will take you out (hotseisi) from the suffering of Egypt; and I will save you (hitsalti) from your slavery; and I will redeem you (goalti) with a strong arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to me (lakachti) as a nation and I will be a G-d to you…” The commentaries explain that the first two stages represented the stages of freedom from the actual slavery, whereas the third signified the actual leaving Egypt. It was at the fourth stage, that of lakachti, that the Jewish people became the ‘Am HaShem’ (the nation of HaShem). The fourth stage culminated in the Giving of the Torah , however it seems that the process of becoming the Am HaShem began whilst the Jewish people were still in Egypt. We see this from the fact that the first Mitzvos commanded to the people as a nation were given in Parshas Bo. Furthermore, the Mitzvo of the Korban Pesach (pascal lamb) that is found in this week’s Parsha, symbolized the Jewish people’s acceptance of the covenant between them as a Nation with HaShem.
There is a very interesting aspect of the transition between the third and fourth stages of Redemption. This is brought out by a law that is found with regard to the Four Cups of Wine that we have on Seder night, which correspond the four stages of Redemption. The Shulchan Aruch rules that one may not drink between the third and fourth cups of wine. This implies that there is a necessity for these two cups to be connected to each other, without having anything separating between them. There are halachic (legal) reasons given for this law, however, perhaps one can suggest a hashkafic (philosophical) explanation.
It is possible to say that it was essential that the fourth stage of the Redemption take place immediately after the third stage, without any hefsek (interruption) in between. Why is this the case? The third stage of goalti, saw the Jewish people completely freeing themselves from being slaves to Pharaoh. However, once they were free of this avdus (service), there was the risk that they would be left in a vacuum without having anyone to serve. This would have been a very dangerous situation, because it seems to be inherent in human nature that man needs to serve and look up to some kind of being or entity. Therefore, it was essential that the Jewish people immediately replace Pharaoh as their focus of service, with, lehavdil, HaShem. That is why HaShem gave them Mitzvos that initiated their relationship with Him even before they left Egypt. As soon as they physically left, they had already begun the process of becoming HaShem’s nation. Accordingly, the law that there can be no gap between the third and fourth cups of wine is symbolic of the fact that there could be no gap between the third and fourth stages of redemption which they correspond to. The stage of leaving the service of Pharaoh had to be immediately followed by the beginning of the service of HaShem.
An important concepts that can be derived from this explanation is that the desire to serve something is inherent in human nature. This has certainly been evident in the vast majority of world history. Until a few hundred years ago, the idea of atheism was virtually unheard of - everyone worshipped one, or more often, many, entities. It was self-understood that there were powers in the world who people had to serve. We see from the necessity of the immediate transition from slaves of Pharaoh to servants of HaShem, that an absence of a figure of service was very dangerous to a person’s psyche.
Based on all this, it is instructive to analyze how, in more recent times, it seems that people have gladly released themselves of the yoke of service to anything. Where do we see a manifestation of this desire to not serve anyone discussed in Torah sources? The answer to this can be found in the words of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l with regard to one particularly abhorrent form of idol worship – that of Baal Peor. There are a number of strange aspects of Baal Peor. One is its form of worship – its worshippers would perform disgusting acts in front of the idol, and the more disgusting the act, the more praiseworthy was the form of worship. Moreover, this form of worship was one that the Jewish people seemed particularly prone to, as was seen in the tragic incident at the end of Parshas Balak where thousands of Jew worshipped Baal Peor. What is the nature of this idol? Rav Shmuelevitz explains that the very essence of Baal Peor was the desire to not be subjugated to any being or power, and as a consequence of this ‘freedom’ to be able to break all boundaries that come with subjugation to a higher source. All other worshippers recognized the need to respect and honor the focus of worship, however worshippers of Baal Peor strived to uproot the human impulse of genuine service and replace it with degradation of authority. Accordingly, the more disrespectful the act, the greater the form of ‘worship’! Based on Rav Shmuelevitz’ explanation it seems that worshippers of Baal Peor were trying to uproot the natural human impulse of worship and direct it to ‘worship’ of the idea that one can do whatever they want.
With this understanding we can explain an enigmatic Gemara about Baal Peor. The Gemara in Sanhedrin tells us about a non-Jewish woman who was very sick. She made an oath that if she recovered she would worship every idol in the world. She did indeed recover and kept to her oath. When she came to Baal Peor she was told how to worship it. When she heard about this, she said, in disdain, that it would have been better to become sick again rather than worship an idol in such a disgusting fashion. It is understandable that she found the form of worship abhorrent, but why was her reaction so strong? It seems that she had the desire of most people to serve a higher force. Therefore, she was willing to serve every ‘force’ in the world. However, when she heard about Baal Peor, she recognized the whole foundation of Baal Peor was in complete contradistinction to the concept of service. Its whole essence was the idea that one need not serve anyone, and one can do whatever he likes. She found this attitude so abhorrent that she preferred to be sick than involve herself in such worship.
It seems that the atheism of recent centuries is also ultimately rooted in the same attitude of Baal Peor. Whilst its adherents may claim that their views are based on philosophy, there are times when they admit that the true reason for their atheism is to permit themselves to live lifestyles that were unhindered by religion. Whilst Idol worship is obviously completely wrong and greatly criticized by the Torah, a number of Torah thinkers have noted that atheism is both more disdainful and more dangerous than idol worship. One reason for this is that someone who worships idols at least recognizes the need to serve something. Therefore, it is not a big leap for him to shift from service of false gods to that of the true G-d. However, one who believes in nothing is much further away from accepting the yoke of service to anything.
We noted before, that the Jewish people were particularly susceptible to Baal Peor. It seems that it was this type of worship that proved most enticing to the Jewish people – the reason for this is that the yetser hara would strive to make them feel hindered by the yoke of service of HaShem and tempt them with a belief system that allowed them to break all boundaries. We all face this test in our lives – there are numerous temptations that give us the opportunity to feel ‘free’ of the ‘burden’, however we must realize that the only source of true fulfillment is pure service of HaShem. As Chazal teach us, the only true freedom is that which comes from following the Torah.