"And You Shall Know that I am the Lord"
"And God said to Moshe, 'Come to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants in order that I may show these, my signs, before him. And that you may tell your son and your grandson of My doings (asher hit'alalti) in Egypt, and the signs which I performed among them, and you shall know that I am the Lord." (Shemot 10:1-2)
Rashi explains on the spot: "Hit'alalti" means "with which I amused myself." Rashi's words are surprising: Surely there can be no "amusement" before the King of kings?! To what can this "amusement" refer?
In the Pesach Haggada we say, "Avadim hayinu le-Far'o be-Mitzrayim (We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt)." The servitude to which we thereby refer is not necessarily the physical toil and pain. A person who voluntarily puts himself into a situation of hard labor or intense suffering is not a slave but rather, for all intents and purposes, a free agent. On the other hand, if a person is forced against his will to wear royal robes and is unable to remove them, then he is truly a slave despite the magnificent garb, or rather because of it.
Bnei Yisrael, while in Egypt, should have cried out bitterly for the simple reason that they were ruled by Pharaoh, king of Egypt, rather than by the Master of the Universe. But sometimes the slave is so deeply immersed in his servitude that he does not mourn over the fact that he is being ruled by others; all his crying is due solely to the intensity of his exertion. This slave has already become, in essence, the material possession of his master; it would never occur to him to question the legitimacy of the master's control over him. All he can hope for is the easing of his workload. This was the pitiful level to which Bnei Yisrael had sunk in Egypt. So complete was their subjugation that their cry was only over their harsh labor. And it was from this situation of degradation that their prayers rose heavenward:
"And Bnei Yisrael sighed from the labor and they cried out, and their cry rose to God from the labor. And God heard their groan, and God remembered his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchak and with Yaakov, and God looked upon Bnei Yisrael and God knew." (Shemot 2:23-24)
This moment marked the beginning of the redemptive process. During the course of the ten plagues, Bnei Yisrael gradually became more and more free of the yoke of Egypt. Their growing freedom reached such a level that, during the plague of darkness, God said to Moshe, "Speak, please, to the people, that each man should ask of his neighbor vessels of silver..." (Shemot 11:2). This is neither an order nor a command, but rather a request - "please." It is as though God told Moshe, "Bnei Yisrael may do as they please now; I can only make requests of them."
As Bnei Yisrael became increasingly liberated from their servitude, Pharaoh simultaneously sank into a bondage of his own. His garb was still royal, to be sure, but he was not free to act as he wished. The King of kings was hardening his heart, compelling him to refuse to release Bnei Yisrael and forcing him into an untenable position. This was the greatest slavery: he had no free choice, and when a person no longer has free choice he has lost his "tzelem Elokim" (Divine image). The level of Pharaoh's new-found subjugation was conversely proportional to Bnei Yisrael's diminishing status as his slaves.
This is God's "amusement" with Pharaoh. It is to this irony that Rashi refers, and it is this which we are told to recount to our children and grandchildren. The significance of it is stated clearly: it is in order that "you shall know that I am the Lord."
Bnei Yisrael leave slavery, attain free choice, and through it all they must remember that "I am the Lord." "I" is a word that should shake each of us to his very foundations. I - but who am I and what am I!? There is only one "I" in the world - "I am the Lord." He, and only He, is in charge, and all of creation runs according to His plans. Yes, man has free choice, but he does not rule the world - it was not he who created it. Man's choice is limited within the processes set in motion by God. The Zohar compares man to a dog tied to a chain. He believes that he is free, but in truth he cannot break away from the framework into which he is placed.
Where, then, is man's free choice? Even the whole problem of Divine knowledge and human free will lies beyond the scope of our understanding. It is essential, though, for us to realize that only the Master of the Universe is able to say "I" - He is the unique reality, determining all the processes of creation. Bnei Yisrael are freed from slavery, but they are obligated to tell their children and grandchildren of the "amusement" that was performed in Egypt, in order that they will know that "I am the Lord." The chain has indeed been loosened, but will never be released.
The following story is told of the Rebbe of Mezritch: A stranger once came and knocked on his front door. The Rebbe asked, "Who is there?" The response was, "I." The Rebbe was shocked that a Jew could utter "I" so easily. "'I'? How can you say such a thing?" The Rebbe opened the door and invited the stranger inside. He asked if he had eaten yet and, upon receiving an answer in the negative, told the guest, "Go to such-and-such a place, a certain distance from here, and eat there." Since the Rebbe had instructed him thus, the Jew went on his way. The road was long and tiring, and he walked and walked, becoming covered with dust along the way. After a hard journey he arrived at the place, filthy and exhausted. A wedding was just about to begin in the village and, as was the custom, a festive meal was offered at the site for the poor. The man joined the poor guests and ate with them. At the end of the meal it was discovered that a silver spoon was missing. Immediately, all suspicion was focused on this Jew, since he was the only stranger, and everyone turned to him accusingly: "You stole!" The Jew replied, "Not I!" They continued to torment him and accuse him, and he steadfastly repeated, "Not I! Not I!" Eventually he managed to escape from them, and started his journey back towards the Rebbe, wondering all the way what the Rebbe's reason could have been for sending him to that place. He arrived at the Rebbe's house, knocked on the door, and once again the Rebbe asked, "Who is there?" The Jew was about to answer "I", as he had been accustomed to do, but suddenly he caught himself and answered, "Not I." Only through suffering and pain had the message penetrated his consciousness - now he knew that he was "not I." There is only one "I" - and that is "He."