Slavery and Freedom

Americans love Passover. And not only American Jews (for whom the Passover Seder is perhaps the most popular of all Jewish rituals); even non-Jews love to get into the act.

Last year, in anticipation of the “fourth annual White House Seder”, President Obama spoke of his excitement about that upcoming event. As a non-Jew preparing to celebrate a Seder led by Jewish members of his staff, he said he was expecting to be inspired with the “common hopes and common sense of obligation” that he sees in the themes of Passover.[1] The President said Passover reminds us that “throughout history there have been those who have sought to oppress others because of their faith, ethnicity, or color of their skin”, and that it allows “Jews around the world” to “renew their faith that liberty will ultimately prevail over tyranny”, and to “give thanks for the blessings of freedom while remembering those who are still not free”.

Undoubtedly, the reason that Passover is so popular in America has a lot to do with the fact that its themes – freedom, liberty, triumph of the human spirit – seem to fit so well with the American narrative. From the Founding Fathers who saw themselves in Biblical terms, to the traditional slave song “Go Down Moses” (which expressed the slaves’ struggle for freedom in Biblical terms – “Tell all Pharaohs to Let My People Go”), to the American Jewish Committee’s “interfaith, interracial, interethnic Thanksgiving reader” – available as a free download to all Americans who want celebrate a Thanksgiving meal modelled on a Passover Seder – Americans of all religions see Passover and its messages as a historical precedent for the American story.

There is only one problem with this idea: inspiring though it may be, it is simply not true.

For one thing, Passover does not express a universal message. The Exodus from Egypt is the foundational narrative of Jewish history, and therefore Passover is actually the most parochial of all Jewish holidays.  We do have holidays with universal messages, but Passover is not one of them. Two good examples would be Rosh Hashana (which is filled with prayers for all of humanity even though it is often inaccurately referred to as “the Jewish New Year”) and Sukkot (during which 70 sacrifices are brought in the Temple, according to the rabbis, in honor of the 70 nations of the world).[2]   So if President Obama wants to participate in a Jewish celebration that he can genuinely identify with as a non-Jew, Passover is the wrong holiday to choose.

In addition to that, though, there’s something even more surprising.  I know this will sound strange, but Passover is actually not about freedom from slavery. In fact, we actually celebrate slavery on Passover.

Yes, you read that sentence correctly. I said that on Passover we celebrate slavery, and not freedom from slavery.

Of course I am aware that the rabbis refer to Passover as zman cherutenu – the time of our freedom. And I am also aware that we declare during the Seder that we were slaves to Pharaoh, but now we are free. But a closer look at the Biblical story (in its original Hebrew) shows that freedom was not the goal of the Exodus from Egypt – at least not in the classic sense of the term.

As we all know, Moses was sent by God to demand freedom for the Jewish people. The exact Hebrew phrase, used in four different places in the book of Shmot (7:16, 7:26, 9:1 and 9:13) is: שלח את עמי ויעבדני – “Send forth My people so that they may serve Me“. The Hebrew word ויעבדני (“so that they may serve Me”) has the same root as the word עבד – slave.  In other words, it is true that on Passover we were released from slavery to Pharaoh. But we were not set free! On the contrary, we were simply transferred from one master to another. Prior to the Exodus, we were slaves to Pharaoh.  Afterwards, we became slaves to God. [3]

So where did the identification of Passover as the holiday of freedom come from? Why, in fact, is Passover referred to as zman cherutenu? I believe the answer to this question can be found in a fascinating passage in the Mishnah (Avot 6:2):

והלחת מעשה א-להים המה והמכתב מכתב א-להים הוא, חרות על הלחת – אל תקרא חרות אלא חירות, שאין לך בן חורין אלא מי שעוסק בתלמוד תורה

This somewhat well-known rabbinic adage is actually shocking. Utilizing a play on words, the rabbis homiletically interpret a Biblical verse describing the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. The Torah describes the writing on the tablets as “charut al haluchot” which literally means engraved on the tablets. The rabbis read it as though it said cherut al haluchot – freedom is on the tablets!  In other words, the tablets which contain Divine commandments – the essence of our slavery to God – are paradoxically identified as being the key to freedom. And in fact, the Mishnah goes on to explain that true freedom is only experienced by one who involves him or herself in the study and practice of Torah.

So indeed, Passover is about freedom – but not exactly the type of freedom revered by Americans.  The freedom we Jews celebrate on Passover is something much more sublime than simply “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.  Rather, we celebrate the capacity of human beings to voluntarily choose (as we did at Sinai) to enslave ourselves to Will of God, to scrupulously follow His commandments and through that to redeem ourselves, our people and ultimately the entire world.

As Jews, we can certainly identify with the American story.  The great country of the United States of America – and the entire democratic world that it leads – are among history’s most noble accomplishments. The victory of freedom over slavery and the advent of a society which really does believe (to quote the Constitution again) “that all men are created equal”, and treats them as such – these are great events that we Jews should support and solute.

But at the same time, when we sit down to the Seder next week to celebrate our own unique zman cherutenu, we must remember that ultimately, freedom must be used for a higher purpose. As Am Levadad Yishkon, this is the message that we must ultimately bring to the world.

[1] He also admitted looking forward to “a good bowl of matza ball soup”. I hope he actualy did enjoy the menu last year, because it turns out he’ll be keeping an exclusively Kosher for Passover diet during his stay at Jerusalem’s King David hotel later this week.

[2] In fact, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 8a) tells us that whereas the years of non-Jewish kings are counted with years beginning in the month of Tishrei (which includes Rosh Hashana and Sukkot), Jewish kings years are counted beginning from Nissan (the month of Passover).

[3] Many other Biblical passages make this point as well. One good example is Bamidbar 15:41, which we recite every day in our prayers as part of kri’at Shema, affirming our obligation to follow God’s commandments because He took us out of Egypt.

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