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Rabbi’s Word: From Servitude to Freedom

We continue cooperation with the institute of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz and publish specially prepared material for the communities of the EAJC members.

On Seder night (the Eve of Passover, the central event of the Passover holiday), which is meant to preserve the memory of Exodus across generations, we observe a vast array of customs and symbolic rituals through which various elements connected to the Exodus come to the fore.

Yet, for all the rich diversity of the Seder night, there is one central motif: “Once we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt; now we are free”. The concept of freedom is expressed in the Haggada through ritual and symbolic acts, through poetry, and through the overall atmosphere of the Seder. The Seder participants recline, as is the custom of free people; they drink four cups of wine to emphasize the bounty, free choice, and ease of liberty. The text of the Haggada itself reiterates in different forms and various wan this one central idea: we are free.

Slavery or labor

It would seem that there is nothing easier to understand than the meaning of slavery. The slave performs hard labor under the watchful eyes of overseers and supervisors, who make sure that he faithfully fulfills his daily quota of work. The slave’s wage is low, and his labor is great. But is that the essence of slavery?

The reality of life in this world is that almost everyone, although free, labors hard and with all his energy in order to earn his livelihood. The whip of the struggle for subsistence is applied almost constantly to the backs of the workers. Throughout the generations, most people have worked hard and yet brought home only enough to meet their basic needs. The ratio between labor and rest, work and ease, changes from place to place and from one profession to another. Ultimately, however, the life of a free person is similar to a life of servitude – even hard labor. Both are composed of a certain combination of these two elements, work and rest.

The essence of slavery, then, lies not in its outer manifestations, but in its inner content. The hardship and suffering entailed in labor are not what create servitude, just as wealth and prosperity do not define freedom.

The essence of slavery lies in the fact that slave’s labor is done entirely for others. The one who determines the purpose of the work is not the worker, nor are the worker’s desires and aspirations expressed through his work. The other person determines the purpose and sets the goals…Therefore, it makes no difference whether the slave performs hard labor with mortar and bricks or sits in an air-conditioned room and writes literary essays. Even in the latter case, he would still be a slave.

Thus, servitude begins with the slave doing the work of others, who determine his way of life and his objectives. But servitude can go deeper than that when it ceases to be merely external toil and is internalized.

As long as the slave feels that as an individual or as part of a nation, he has his own independent aspirations – as long as he feels the suffering of his servitude, recalling that he is compelled to do the work of others despite his own goals – he is not yet completely enslaved. When the slave forgets that he is a person and begins to identify with his servitude, then the servitude has penetrated his soul. At that point he loses his independent existence…

One who has no volition of his own – whether because slavery has dulled and broken his spirit or because he has not developed an independent personality – cannot be truly free. Such a person has no essential character of his own, and he will not become free even when the yoke of bondage is eventually removed from him and he ceases to be a slave. Instead, he merely becomes an abandoned object, a slave without a master.

We do not know how the Jews in Egypt rationalized their servitude, but we do not have to search far in order to find Jews today who have acted and continue to act the very same way. These Jews idealize servitude, exile, and life among the nations. The ideal of the Jew, to their mind, is to continue being what he is: a servant to the nations and to their values. The Jew’s aspiration is to do the nations’ bidding. Even the blows and the suffering inflicted upon us by the nations cease to be something that should be complained about. For some Jews, these, too, have become part of the Jewish People’s “mission” – to be exiles and sufferers, carrying the burden of other people’s lives and work.

When the slave cannot free himself from his servitude because it has ceased to be a disgrace, a burden, or a source of pain for him, when he claims that it suits him and that he should remain in this state forever, he thereby changes from a temporary slave into an eternal slave.

The reason that Moses and Aaron presented to Pharaoh for their request to allow the people to leave Egypt was the people’s need to celebrate a “festival unto God” in the wilderness.

At first glance, this appears to be merely an excuse; the people of Israel wanted to leave Egypt, and toward this end, they invented a reason by which to justify themselves to Pharaoh. In fact, however, this element of celebrating a festival unto God is central to the Exodus, for it expresses the essence of going forth from slavery to redemption.

The turnabout from exile to redemption is not made all at once. Between ceasing to be a slave and acquiring freedom, the individual must pass through an intermediate stage in his development, without which he cannot become truly free – he must develop inner qualities of his own. To become not merely runaway slaves but truly free people, the people of Israel had to develop their own independent character.

As Pharaoh himself quickly perceived, the very desire to serve God is a sign of the weakening grip of the servitude, for true slaves have no real gods. Moreover, the primary duty of the slave is to do his work and serve his master. The moment the slave discovers that there is a Master above all masters, that there is authority and duty higher than all other obligations by which he, too, is bound, he is internally no longer a slave.

In order to prevent national revival, Pharaoh tried to break the people’s spirit with harsh, purposeless labor. His goal was to reduce them to a state in which they would no longer be able to dream, to desire things beyond the realm of the simplest pleasures.

This was the importance of delineating a purpose to the Exodus “to celebrate a festival unto God in the wilderness.” When there is a genuine purpose and the new way of life that is aspired to is not simply an imitation and continuation of the slavery, but truly different – then the redemption begins.

Liberation, then, depends on acquiring an authentic identity, not on rejecting external labor. The meaning of liberation is accepting an authentic system of values, an authentic scale of goals. One who has no identity of his own and no God of his own is bound to always remain a slave, even if his master is not at this moment standing over him. The external whip can be broken, but the stamp of the slave within his soul remains.

In this sense, the bondage of Egypt did not end with the exodus from Egypt. The People of Israel is liable to revert to that bondage while in other exiles and even while on its own land.

As long as the Jewish People in exile retained their authentic spiritual character, their spiritual principles, their internal and their distinctive way of life, they were not, in this dimension at least, subservient. The Jew in exile was persecuted, humiliated, and despised; he had to admit to being weak in helpless in many areas of life. Nevertheless, his exile was not complete, for he still considered himself endowed with an independent will; his spiritual world was like a substitute for a homeland. It was assimilation that made exile complete, for it was then that the Jew lost his own distinctive character. Such a Jew, even when he leaves the physical exile and arrives in his own lands carrying the exile (galut) with him. He continues to be subservient to the external world – subservient in his way of thought and principles of faith. Although the external world may no longer rule his body, it continues its tyranny over his soul. Large sectors of the Jewish People act this way, they work and toil, build cities and edifices, found cultures and bring about revolutions, develop sciences and write literature – all for the Pharaoh in each generation… This is exactly how the nation expresses itself in Song of Songs; “They made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I did not keep.” (Song of Songs 1:6)

One of the Hasidic masters aptly observed that taking the Jews out of the galut is easier than taking the galut out of the Jews. Externally leaving the galut can serve many great ends, but in and of itself, it is not even the “beginning of the redemption.” Attempts that have been made in various ways to achieve the liberation of the Jewish People by merely external departure from galut are incapable of bringing about true redemption. External departure from exile entails only the migration of slaves from one place to another; there is no liberation, no leaving the house of bondage. The true beginning of the redemption comes when the people reject not only the yoke of Egypt, but also the yoke of Egyptianismin their souls.

In order to achieve redemption and not only an end to exile, the Jewish People must reacquire its own essence, its spirit and character, ways of thinking, and ways of life. Only then can it be a nation of free people.

Therefore, On Seder night, we emphasize this essential point: “Once we were slaves, and now we are free.”  As we go through the rituals and recite the Haggada, we must bring ourselves to understand that escape from slavery is not enough; we must also be our true selves, thereby becoming truly free.