Let My People Go. . .That They May Serve Me | Congregation Beth Am

Let My People Go. . .That They May Serve Me

By Rabbi Sarah Wolf on
March 26, 2010

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  We do hold these truths to be self-evident: what could be clearer?  These are our country’s most cherished ideals, the foundation of our self-image as Americans.  As Nancy Pelosi said on Sunday night about passing the health care bill, “In doing so, we will honor the vows of our founders, who in the Declaration of Independence said that we are ‘endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’  This legislation will lead to healthier lives, more liberty to pursue hopes and dreams and happiness for the American people.  This is an American proposal that honors the traditions of our country.”  On the other side of the aisle, Representative John Boehner said a couple of weeks ago, “I believe freedom is a right, and any health care bill that takes away Americans’ freedom is wrong.  I think Americans should have the freedom to choose their own health care, and that the government shouldn’t choose it for them.”  We may disagree about how liberty is best protected, but the fundamental value of freedom is never questioned.  “Give me liberty or give me death!” cries Patrick Henry.  And what is this liberty?  As the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen defined it in 1789:  “ Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights.  These limits can only be determined by law.”  Freedom needs no explanation or justification; it is an end in itself.  As human beings, we have the inherent right to do whatever we want as long as we don’t infringe on anyone else’s rights. 

I hate to disagree with our founding fathers (or with Nancy Pelosi), but in Jewish tradition, these truths are not self-evident, and our Creator has not necessarily endowed us with the unalienable right of liberty, at least not the way the Declaration of Independence frames it.  Jewish freedom is a little bit more complicated.

Next week, at many of our Seders, we will sing the spiritual that has found its way into many haggadahs, “Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land, tell ol’ Pharaoh, let My people go.”  Let My people go!  It’s the slogan of Passover, our Festival of Freedom.  Can’t you just hear Charlton Heston’s booming voice? There’s just one problem.  In the Torah, Moses never says, “Let My people go,” because God never tells him to say it.  What God tells Moses, and what Moses repeats to Pharaoh is, “Shalach et ami v’ya’avduni.” “Let My people go that they may serve Me.”  Not quite as catchy, is it?  And yet, this is the freedom that our tradition envisions for the Jewish People.  Not the absolute right to do whatever we want, not freedom for its own sake.  In fact, doing whatever we want is viewed negatively in the Hebrew Bible.  The Book of Judges concludes with a horrifying account of intertribal rape and killing with the explanation that “in those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25).  Freedom from all authority and law, according to our sacred texts, leads to an “unbridled id,” a society in which people are in reality not free, but slaves to their own passions.  As the prophet Bob Dylan says, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody... it may be the devil or it may be the Lord.”  Judaism teaches us that the goal is not simply to attain a “freedom from” but is a mission to achieve the “freedom to.”

Shalach et ami v’ya’avduni.”  “Let My people go that they may serve Me.”  True freedom is the freedom to serve God, and fortunately, we’ve been given the tools to effect our own liberation.  In the Mishnah, we read an interpretation of a verse from Exodus in which Moses receives the Ten Commandments, “The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, engraved on the tablets” (Ex. 32:16).  The Mishnah teaches, “Don’t read ‘charut,’ ‘engraved,’ but rather, ‘cheirut,’ ‘freedom,’ for no one is free except the one who busies himself with the study of Torah...” (Avot 6:2).  According to the Sages, God has etched liberty into the tablets of the Ten Commandments.  The Law contains the key to liberty.  By studying and following the Torah, we can learn to become the masters of our inclinations and desires and channel them in service of something better.

At Passover, we often take time to think about our personal “mitzrayim,” the narrow, oppressive forces by which we and our world have been or still are restricted.  Just like sharing what we’re thankful for at Thanksgiving, it’s become common at Seders for everyone to take turns naming some bondage we have escaped this year, an illness or hardship or bad habit from which we’ve been released.  In this way, we fulfill the Haggadah’s command that each of us see ourselves as if we personally have been redeemed from Egypt.  It can be a powerful exercise, a way to bring the story of Passover to life.

But I want to suggest a slightly different approach this year: in addition to reflecting on what we have been or hope to be freed from, let’s take a look at what we are free, or would like to be free, to do.  If we take the Exodus narrative seriously, we have been liberated in order to serve God, so we might consider how, exactly, we’re meant to do that.  Serving God means, among other things, that we align our choices and behavior with righteousness, voluntarily submitting our own desires to a greater good.  As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg explains, “Freedom means freely choosing commitment and obligations that bring out the individual’s humanity.”  What are those obligations that each of can make that bring out our humanity and give our lives meaning?  Are we making full use of the liberty we enjoy to devote ourselves to family, to community, to the cause of justice, to the pursuit of peace?  Ironically, we can most fully exercise our liberty by limiting it, voluntarily decreasing our freedom by committing ourselves to the service of others and the service of the Most High.          

As Americans, we will always be concerned with “liberty from,” committed to protecting our freedom from tyranny and oppression.  As Jews, we are concerned with what happens next: what do we do with the liberty we’ve achieved?  “Let My people go” is only half the story.  The rest remains to be written.

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