I have always found this to be one the Haggadah’s fascinating sentences: “Metichilah ovdei avodah zarah hiyu avotainu, v’achshav karvanu HaMakom l’avodato (in the beginning, our ancestors were idol worshippers, and now, the Omnipresent One has brought us close to worship Him).”
It is based on the mishnaic statement (Pesachim 10:4): “One begins the telling of the Pesach story with that which is embarrassing (genut) and concludes with that which is praiseworthy (shevach),” and is elaborated upon in Talmud Bavli (Pesachim 116a): “What is genut? Rav said: ‘In the beginning, our ancestors were idol worshippers,’ [and Shmuel] said: ‘We were slaves’.”
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik suggests the following explanation of this machloket: “It appears that they [Rav and Shmuel] are disagreeing as to the essence of the nature of the Egyptian servitude. Rav maintains that the fundamental characteristic of this bondage was the subjugation of the soul (hashibude hanafshi), that is, the Egyptians enslaved the souls of the Jewish people until they were forced down to the level of the 49th gate of impurity. … In contrast, Shmuel asserts that the fundamental quality of this slavery was the subjugation of the physical (hashibude hageshami), in that the Egyptians enslaved the Jewish people and forced them to perform back-breaking labor.”
In sum, Rabbi Soloveitchik asserts that Rav maintained spiritual subjugation (hashibude hanafshi) was the essence of our ancestors’ slavery experience in Egypt, whereas Shmuel held that it was fundamentally physical in nature (hashibude hageshami). These differing positions lead to contrasting opinions as to how to understand geulat mitzrayim (the Redemption from Egypt).
For Rav, Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests, “the essence of the geulah, wherein the Holy One blessed be He redeemed us, is also expressed through His drawing us near to Him to His service and giving us the Torah, for, in truth, this was the ultimate purpose of the Exodus. … As such, Rav holds that when we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we must begin with genut and speak of our spiritual enslavement and conclude with praise [to the Almighty] regarding the Redemption; namely, the Holy One blessed be He redeemed us, and brought us near to Him to His service.”
According to the Rav, Shmuel argued that the Redemption should be viewed as the miraculous act wherein “the Holy One redeemed us from actual physical slavery (m’liyot avadim b’guf), and this is the case even though the purpose of yetziat mitzrayim was the receiving of the Torah. Nonetheless, the geulah from mitzrayim was [to cast off the shackles of slavery], m’hashibude hageshami. Therefore, when we tell the story of yetziat mitzrayim we begin with avadim hi’yinu.”
The second half of the Haggadah’s statement, “v’achshav karvanu HaMakom l’avodato (and now, the Omnipresent One has brought us close to worship Him),” has received far less attention in the works of the standard Haggadah commentators than the first. This is striking, since the word, “v’achshav,” appears entirely out of place.
As the Chasidic rebbe, Rav Avraham Dov Baer of Ovruch, Ukraine, notes: “One must be very exact and ask, what is the meaning of the expression ‘v’achshav,’ when the Haggadah should have written, ‘v’achar kach karvanu (and afterwards He brought us),’ since [everything that is mentioned in the subsequent proof text from Sefer Yehoshua] is prior to our forebears and their Departure from Egypt?”
Rav Avraham Dov Baer’s response to his question is an interpretive tour de force:
“The explanation of, ‘v’achshav,’ is as follows: Since we now know [the true extent of] our [spiritual] defect, namely, that we were idol worshippers, and we are now exceedingly embarrassed because of the evil of our actions, we are [are now in the position] to beseech Hashem in great humility and embarrassment.
“As a result of our approaching Him in this manner, He will have mercy upon us, bring us near, and provide an opening for us to do teshuvah. [Moreover,] He will transform the letter ‘chet’ [in the word chametz, chet-mem-tzaddi] into a ‘heh,’ and thereby [metaphorically] change chametz [that represents the yetzer hara] into matzah [mem-tzaddi-heh] that signifies, [in this instance, that which is free of sin].”
May it be Hashem’s will and our fervent desire, that on this Pesach, we will be zocheh to transform all the chametz in our hearts and minds into matzah, so that we may serve Him in holiness and devotion. V’chane yihi ratzon.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.