“LET MY PEOPLE GO!”
It may be the single most effective political campaign in history.
“LET MY PEOPLE GO!”
From Moshe Rabeinu to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the mid-twentieth century and beyond, the words, “LET MY PEOPLE GO!” are synonymous with a public outcry on behalf of an enslaved people.
“LET MY PEOPLE GO!” is a motivator, a call to action, a call to conscience!
But then what? We rarely hear what comes immediately afterwards. The rest of the verse from Exodus ch.10, v.3, is
שלח עמי ויעבדני– “shalach ami v’ya-ahv-dooni”
The Hebrew word, Ya-ahv-dooni, comes from the same root as the word for slave, eved: עָבַד.
This “extra” word, v’ya-ahv-dooni, adds a completely different sentiment to the oft repeated, “LET MY PEOPLE GO!” It adds an explanation for what might come after the liberation.
Mostly, v’ya-ahv-dooni is translated, “THAT THEY MIGHT WORSHIP ME”
But throughout the TaNaKh, this root word עָבַד. is used to describe various forms of labor: English translations range from “cultivate”, “till”, “make servant” and “impose”.
The people doing this work are referred to as in “bondage”, “laborers”, and “workers”.
Somehow, “LET MY PEOPLE GO SO THAT THEY MIGHT BE WORKERS” doesn’t have the same effect as simply the outcry, “LET MY PEOPLE GO!” without a caveat of any obligation that the newly freed individuals will be expected to do in exchange for their liberation.
It seems paradoxical that the freed slaves (avadim) must be set free so that they might work (ya-ahv-dooni).
But there is something unique and important that is lost when we truncate Moshe’s message to Pharoah in Exodus 10:3.
“LET MY PEOPLE GO!” may well be a motivational message advocating for drastic change from the status quo, it may be an outcry by the people to an oppressor
and a slogan to unite a group as they prepare to rise up against abuses of power, but it does not inspire the people or give them any guidelines on how to choose a better life for themselves once they’ve been freed.
The brilliance of שלח עמי ויעבדני– “shalach ami v’ya-ahv-dooni is that it takes the people from where they are – slaves – avadim and it subtly and gently suggests how they might transform themselves into free people, who might learn to use the same root letters for that which subjugated them to an oppressive power, Pharoah, to become people who might work for a higher good as free people who may worship God.
“Ya-ahv-dooni” is an offering by God to the people of a passageway to true freedom. Only free people can choose to worship God, to be laborers for truth and justice, or follow a path of good deeds and loving-kindness.
“Ya-ahv-dooni” is a suggestion, not a command.
“THAT THEY MIGHT WORSHIP ME” is a hope, a dream uttered by a Divine voice thinking wistfully of a future time wherein the freed Israelites will no longer be avadim to Pharoah in Egypt, but instead will choose to take the raw materials of their subjugation and transform themselves into human beings with free will – choosing to worship the One True God – and to follow ways of righteousness.
Again and again throughout the Torah (and beginning almost immediately after the Exodus), we are instructed to remember: Avadim hayyinu – we were slaves in Egypt.
And now, it is up to us to choose: for Whom will we labor?