Thursday, January 19, 2012

The "Freedom" of the Exodus

It seems appropriate to me that Julie and I are starting this blog while the annual Torah reading cycle is more or less at the beginning of the book of Shmot (Exodus), with the narrative of Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt).

Yetziat Mitzrayim, aside from the national genesis of the Jewish People, is the true beginning of the Covenant between God and Israel. There would be no Sinai without the Exodus, and there could be no Torah without our freedom. That’s not just two ways of saying the same thing.

In the twenty-sixth verse of the seventh chapter of Shmot (Parashat Va’era), Moshe Rabbeinu (our teacher Moses) instructs Pharaoh ko amar Hashem: shlach et ‘ami vaya’avduni. “Thus says Hashem: send forth my people, so that they may serve me.”

It’s worth noting that this verse is often only partially quoted: “Let my people go!” says Charleton Heston to Yul Brynner, or sings Paul Robeson with basso mournfulness. But the problem with ending the sentence there is that that wasn’t the deal. The freedom that we were given was not the freedom of anarchic self-determination without bound or limit. It was the freedom to leave a situation wherein we had no right or power but to do as we were told suited the whims of Pharaoh, with no other ends for us to serve but his pleasure; and instead, to willingly take upon ourselves, as an entire and united people, a covenant between ourselves and God, wherein the ends desired are the establishment and furtherance of a just society for the People Israel, the modeling of the same for the aid of other societies to become more just, and the dedication of ourselves and our descendants forever to an attempt to elevate all of us in holiness, and develop spiritual awareness and enrichment in every individual among us.

Freedom, in other words, is not entirely free. It includes the obligations of a framework of social responsibilities, and the commitment to goals of a very long-term and deep nature. Freedom which lacks those things, which is free of all responsibilities, of all obligations between people or between ourselves and God, is not actually such a wonderful thing: as Kris Kristofferson sang, some years ago, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose. Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free.” And while there may be a certain exhilaration that can come with having no ties to anyone or anything, and living purely in and for the moment, it is not particularly sustaining of either human relationships or social justice. Which is why the freedom that Kris Kristofferson sang about (and, yes, Janis Joplin sang about too, since her cover is probably better known than the original) is not what we mean by freedom in the narrative of Yetziat Mitzrayim.

Our freedom is not just a freedom from something, but freedom to something.

When we left Egypt it was to go to Sinai. When we came to Sinai, it was to enter into the covenant of Torah with God. When we left Sinai, it was to take our place as a covenanted nation and begin our share of the work in the covenant. God did his part by giving prophets prophecy and setting us on the path that would become the Judaism we all recognize today, and that will become whatever the Judaism of tomorrow’s tomorrow will look like. Our part was to accept the covenant, and then, when prophecy came to an end, to take up the reins of Torah and begin to make more of it-- a right and duty that we have embodied in the process of halachic interpretation, as we learn in the Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a (the Tanur shel Achnai incident).

We sometimes forget that our primary duty is the creation of Torah. And since Torah, in its widest sense, is not only Torah she’bich’tav (Written Torah), but Torah she’b’al peh (Oral Torah), which can include halachah (Jewish Law, although the term is broader than the usual translation implies: “The Way of the Jews” might be a better translation), aggadah and midrash (exegetical and homiletical parables), kabbalah (mysticism), minhag (customs), tefillah (liturgy), parshanut (commentary), and all the other aspects, details, nuances, embellishments, and creations of our sacred tradition, that gives us a palette of epic proportions to use, and a canvas incapable of completion upon which to work.

When we use our freedom to observe the mitzvot (commandments), to expand and interpret Jewish Law, to try and improve Jewish society and the societies around us with justice, compassion, lovingkindness, and respectful tolerance in disagreement and dispute, we make Torah, and we carry out our role in the covenant. In this way, we live our lives in fulfillment of the entirety of the verse ko amar Hashem: shlach et ‘ami vaya’avduni. “Thus says Hashem: send forth my people, so that they may serve me.”


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