January 18th-19th, 2002
6 Shevat, 5762
Freedom is certainly one of our most prized possessions as Americans. The whole purpose of our current war on terrorism, we are told, is to preserve our unique way of life with its blessed freedom and liberties.
It would be so nice and simple to be able to bring the Torah in clear support of our American idea of freedom, to break out some bubbly biblical quotations that praise and glorify freedom (and there are some). The only problem would be that we would have to define our terms first, and once we would do that, we might find the Torah perspective on "freedom" and "liberty" vastly different from that of, say, George W. Bush, Thomas Jefferson or J. S. Mill.
To be more precise, the meaning and value of "freedom" for us Jews is quite starkly defined by the Torah (and by the terms of our covenantal relationship as a people with
G-d that the Torah describes)…and it ain’t what many of us may think (or want) it to be.
But hey, a Jew has to tell the truth, or (since there are valid halakhic reasons not to tell it at times) at least to know what the truth is. One of my great teachers, Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld [to whom we wish a complete recovery from recent surgery, b’ezras Hashem] used to say to us that the time when Torah is most useful is when it teaches us something is NOT the way we always thought it to be. (I would add this is when it’s most truly, "Torah," in the sense of a body of wisdom beyond our own) After all, we want to raise up our minds to new vistas, don’t we? Or would we rather remain right…where we are?
These Torah portions that deal with the Exodus from Egypt give us the correct Torah perspective on freedom, insofar as the concept applies to the Jewish people.
In last week’s parsha, Moshe was told to inform the Jewish people that G-d would remove them from Egypt, redeem them with great judgments. "I shall take you to Me for a people, and I shall be a G-d to you; and you shall know that I am
Hashem, your G-d, Who takes you out from the burdens of Egypt." (6, 7)
For what (sole) purpose was the Jewish people removed from the demeaning burden of being slaves to Pharaoh? To assume the "yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven," the blessed responsibility of being G-d’s people and elevating ourselves through accepting Him as our G-d. In other words: freedom (from a human master) to be able to become a servant (to a divine Master).
"Remember the day on which you departed from Egypt, from the house of bondage, for with a strong hand G-d removed you from here…" (13, 3)
Although that verse from this week’s parsha is, on the simple level, speaking of the observance of Passover,
Rashi cites the Midrashic teaching that the particular form of the verb, "remember," suggests an ongoing obligation. "This teaches us," Rashi comments, "that we must make mention of the Exodus from Egypt every day." In practice, we fulfill this obligation by reciting the third paragraph of the Shema--which discusses the Exodus. (In the Book of Devarim, the Torah again tells of a daily obligation to think Exodus: "…so that you will remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.")
We may think, superficially, that the purpose of remembering the Exodus each day is so that we never forget the "freedom" G-d so lovingly gave us. Right??
Just the opposite, in fact, says the Sefer Chareidim (a famous kabbalistic-ethical
work ). Rather, the purpose of mentioning the Exodus each day is "so that a person will not mistakenly presume himself to be a free person!" We need to remind ourselves each day that, in the ultimate sense, we are not alone and we are not our own.
True, we retain the "freedom" to run away from acknowledging this truth. We may boldly assert that we are beholden to no man, to no deity; we are only responsible to ourselves. In response, I’ll quote you a line from a great Jewish artist who wasn’t thinking about his Judaism when he penned it…but which I believe contains some Jewish truth in it, nonetheless: "It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve Somebody!" The person who serves "nobody" is usually serving his passion, his appetites, his lust for pleasure or glory (which, collectively, we may include, with some truth under the heading, "Devil")…or his own reason (which is likely cutting deals with the Devil under the table in any case).
To serve G-d is an elevating service, not an enervating one. It’s experiencing freedom from the mundane and the transitory, and the illusions that look and smell so good…but evaporate immediately upon (or soon after) embrace.
It’s experiencing freedom…from Egypt, Mitzrayim, from the root word that means, "narrow straits."
The S’fas Emes tells us that Egypt exists at all times for each Jew. We all have our
tzaros--our narrow straits--whether of an external or internal kind. The key to our own personal redemption (and the real meaning of "remembering the Exodus from Egypt" is to constantly know and remember that G-d took us out…and takes us out. Every day.
My new e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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