Parashat Ki-Tavo begins with the mitzva of bikkurim, the requirement to bring one’s first fruits that ripen to the Beit Ha-mikdash, where a special text was recited, , briefly recounting the story of the Egyptian bondage and the Exodus. In this text, which the Torah dictates, the farmer recalls how Benei Yisrael cried out to God in Egypt, and God accepted their pleas, “and he saw our torment, our labor and our oppression” (26:7).
The Sifrei, in a passage familiar to us from the Haggadah, goes through each term or phrase in this text and explains it by referring to a parallel passage in the Torah’s account of the bondage and Exodus, in Sefer Shemot. Commenting on the word “lachatzeinu” (“our oppression”), the Sifrei explains that this refers to the “dechak,” the pressure to which the Egyptians subjected Benei Yisrael. The Sifrei cites as its prooftext the verse in Sefer Shemot (3:9) in which God proclaims, “Ve-gam ra’iti et ha-lachatz asher Mitzrayim lochatzim otam” – “I have also seen the pressure to which the Egyptians are subjecting you.”
Rav Yaakov Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha’kabbala, raises the question of how the verse in Sefer Shemot helps clarify or determine the meaning of “lachatzeinu” in this verse. Chazal here clearly cite the verse in Shemot as a basis for their interpretation of “lachatzeinu” as “pressure,” but it seems, at first glance, difficult to understand why that verse sheds light on the meaning of this term.
Rav Mecklenberg answers that the root l.ch.tz. in Biblical Hebrew can have two different (albeit related) meanings. It can mean “pressure” in the sense of cramped, crowded conditions, a tight time schedule, or emotional pressure that denies a person the mental “space” he needs to feel calm and relaxed. These are all different forms of “pressure” that can be described with the root “l.ch.tz.” Additionally, however, this term can refer to “shortage,” as in the phrase “lechem tzar u-mayim lachatz” used in Sefer Yeshayahu (30:20) in reference to scarce rations of food and water. Accordingly, Rav Mecklenberg writes, when considering the meaning of “lachtazeinu” in the Torah’s description here in Parashat Ki-Tavo of the Egyptian bondage, it is not immediately clear to what precisely this refers. It may denote scarcity, in which case it refers to the Egyptians’ denying Benei Yisrael adequate food rations, or, it may refer to the pressure of the slaves’ intense workload or cramped quarters. The Sifrei therefore cites the verse “asher Mitzrayim lochatzim otam,” in which Benei Yisrael are the direct object of the verb “lochatzim.” This is syntactically sensible, Rav Mecklenberg argues, only if the verb “lochtazim” refers to the imposition of pressure, as then we can speak of the Egyptians pressuring the people. If it referred to shortage of food, the Torah would have said, “lochtazim lahem” – causing them shortage, as it is grammatically incorrect (even in English) to speak of people “shortaging” other people. Hence, this verse from Sefer Shemot clarifies that “lachatzeinu” here in Parashat Ki-Tavo refers to pressure, and not the scarcity of food.
Rav Mecklenberg adds that Chazal afforded great importance to this matter because the account of the Exodus in the mikra bikkurim proclamation had to be precisely accurate. The truth was that Benei Yisrael received adequate food in Egypt, as evidenced by their pining in the wilderness for the days when they “sat on the fleshpot” in Egypt, enjoying plenty of food (Shemot 16:3). (We should note, however, that according to some opinions, Benei Yisrael here spoke untruthfully in this regard, as they in fact did suffer from scarcity and deprivation in Egypt.) In order to demonstrate the accuracy of the mikra bikkurim text, Chazal found it necessary to clarify that “lachatz” refers to the pressured conditions of slavery, and not to food deprivation.
This final point made by Rav Mecklenberg perhaps reminds us to avoid exaggeration as we reflect upon our difficulties and hardships. People are occasionally tempted to overstate their suffering or the extent of the adverse conditions they endure or have endured. Mikra bikkurim represents the value the Torah sees in remembering and reflecting upon our past hardships, but Rav Mecklenberg’s comments warn us to reflect accurately and truthfully, without exaggeration. It is improper to view things more negatively than they actually are, or, in the case of retrospection, than they actually were. Even as we recall and reflect a period as painful and dreadful as the Egyptian bondage, we must ensure not to depict the conditions as being worse than they were.