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