Rashi (12:6) explains that G-d ordered the Jewish people to take the korban Pesach four days before its shechita so they would have a mitzvah to engage in and garner merit to earn geulah. (The Netziv notes that in this case the preparation for the mitzvah, the hechsher mitzvah, is itself counted as a mitzvah). “The time to fulfill the promise I made to Avraham has arrived,” declared G-d, and therefore the Jewish people must do something to earn the promised redemption.
Rav Shteinman asks: since redemption was promised by G-d, whether the Jewish people earned it or not, redemption was inevitable. Why was this act of mitzvah performance to accrue merit necessary?
He answers that there are levels of geulah. Perhaps without the merit of mitzvos fewer people would have deserved redemption, or perhaps the geulah would not have included the experience of Yam Suf. Now that the Jewish people proved their obedience, they deserved a greater geulah.
I think it’s worth noting that R’ Shteinman’s question is almost the flipside of R’ Yerucham’s question (which we discussed last year) of why a promise of geulah was necessary -- Hashem could simply deliver geulah whenever we deserve it (or some other cheshbon) without advanced promises or notice. Perhaps the different questions indicate different perspectives: do we place our emphasis on G-d’s promise as the driving force for geulah and our merit is just added icing on the cake, or is geulah a result of our merit, and G-d’s promise is the added icing that requires explanation?
Perhaps one can answer R’ Shteinman’s question simply by saying that redemption was bound to occur, but a geulah which is “nahama d’kisufa” is far less meaningful than a geulah which one feels one has earned.
These overlapping reasons for redemption, the promise to Avraham and the merit of mitzvos, may also relate to two different aspects of gaulus. The Shem m’Shmuel (in one of the latter parshiyos in Braishis; sorry, I forgot where exactly) points out that there seems to be more than one explanation for galus Mitzrayim. On the one hand, Avraham was told that his children will be strangers in a foreign land for four hundred years. On the other hand, Chazal tell us that it was the conflict between Yosef and his brothers that caused the descent into galus. Which one was it?
The Shem m’Shmuel answers that there are two aspects to galus: there is the physical exile into a strange land, living at times under harsh rule and persecution, and then there is the spiritual element of galus, the loss of our ability to study torah and perform mitzvos properly. Avraham was told his children would suffer physical dispersal from the land, but it was the conflict between Yosef and his brothers that tore apart the achdus that is the foundation from which the spirituality of am Yisrael springs.
Hashem told Moshe, “Daber na b’oznei ha’am v’yishalu ish m’eis rey’eyhu v’isha m’eis re’usa klei kesef…” (11:2) It seems odd that the pasuk should call our Egyptian oppressors “rey’eyhu”, and tell us to speak to them so politely, saying “na”/please. The GR”A explains that the pasuk is not speaking about Egyptians, but about the Jewish people. Each person was told to go to his/her neighbor and ask to please borrow some item. At this crucial moment before geulah, all of Klal Yisrael would be engaged in performing an act of chessed, lending some item to his or her fellow Jew! (Might it be that the lending of garments by one girl to another described in the Mishna at the end of Ta'anis was the merit which caused so many shidduchim to occur on Tu b'Av?) By performing chessed one merits chessed in return, and the next pasuk continues that because of their chessed to each other the Jewish people would merit finding “chein” in the eyes of the Egyptians who would give them their wealth.
I would go a step further. It is not only the wealth of Egypt which was earned through this act of chessed, but it was an element of geulah itself. The physical release from Egypt was going to happen no matter what, but the release from spiritual captivity, the rebuilding of the spiritual foundations of our nation, was in our hands. The small act of chessed every Jew performed for his neighbor was the undoing of the animosity between Yosef and his brothers than landed us in spiritual exile.
To return to Rav Shteinman’s question, undoubtedly Hashem would fulfill his promise to release us physically from Egypt no matter what. But release from physical bondage while remaining in spiritual captivity is an incomplete geulah. It was through mitzvos, especially the mitzvah of korban Pesach which was shared among multiple families, eaten together at one table under one roof, that we earned our spiritual redemption.
One final thought: the power of little things! The neighbors borrowing from each other didn't really have a need, but were simply following Moshe's instructions to ask so as to create an opportunity for chessed. Yet, this small act of chessed transformed the Jewish people from humiliated slaves into people who found chein in the eyes of the Egyptians. It doesn't require running to Haiti on Shabbos to generate chein b'einei hagoyim -- we all have the opportunity to do so right at home, by applying ourselves to even small acts of chessed that can be done on a daily basis. These little acts of chessed can combine to create a tidal wave of chessed that will in turn release chasdei Hashem upon us all.