The Nature of Slavery
I would like to dedicate this shiur in the memory of my father
חיים מרדכי בן יעקב – Chaim Mordechai ben Yaakov
הריני כפרת משכבו
A few weeks ago we all sat around the seder table. One of the discussions that came up at my father’s home was the nature of slavery. We posed the question “What do you think is the most troubling element in being a slave?” The various participants at the seder expressed their opinions. All of the answers revolved around the fact that slaves cannot make their own decisions, they are not in charge of their own time and they cannot refuse to do an assigned task. The fundamental concepts of personal autonomy and basic freedom are absent when it comes to a slave.
On Pesach we celebrate our transformation from a life of servitude to a life of freedom, as we describe the Holiday in our teffilot “Chag HaMatzot – Zman Cherutanu” – the Time of our Freedom. Pharaoh had total control over every aspect of our lives. It was not simply a very long sentence of hard labor, but rather even the family structure itself was dictated by the Egyptian government. This is also accented in the Ten Commandments where God introduces Himself as the One who took you out of Egypt, the house of slavery. In fact we even have a daily bracha thanking God for not making us slaves.
At this stage we should have been satisfied with our discussion and had the next cup of wine and proceeded with the rest of the evening. However that is not what happened. We then turned to a more difficult challenge. It turns out that we do not really strive for freedom at all. As pleasing as a concept of personal autonomy is, it is not one of the tenets of the Jewish faith. Judaism does not see individual freedom as it is viewed in the Western World today. In fact we have not been freed from slavery at all as we clearly see in this week’s parsha:
“For they are my slaves that I have taken out of Egypt”…(25:42) and again near the end of the parsha, “The People of Israel are My slaves, for I have taken them out of Egypt…(25:55).
God states quite clearly that we remain slaves, but this time to God Himself.
Our enslavement to God takes on different forms and meanings depending on the context in which it is mentioned. In our parsha the context of the pessukim is the limitation placed upon ownership of land and slaves; we are not to overstep our bounds in either realm. One would have naturally assumed that by virtue of the fact that we own something or someone that we obviously have the right to unlimited privileges. The Torah teaches us that even the legal owner has a higher power that has the ultimate deed on the item and needs to be answered to.
In this light the concept of slavery to God does not teach us about who we are but rather who we are not.
The Torah uses the term “my slave” in another context, once with regard to Moshe and once with regard to Yehoshuah. Both are referred to by God in the first person as His slave. In this case we are being told something very different. No one is being warned against excessive ownership of Moshe and Yehoshuah, rather the term “slave” denotes a description of a central aspect of their personalities. In this context we are being taught that these two great leaders were totally loyal to God. All of the disadvantages that we listed above in servitude are now seen in a positive light. Neither of them made independent decisions or acted on their own interests; instead they both represented God’s will alone and did everything to actualize His will in this world.
We find the use of this type of description often in Tehilim by King David. To note just one, he writes in Hallel that he is “Your servant, the son of Your maid”. The stress in this passuk is the subservience to God which is so engrained that it is already second generation. I find it significant that it is the great rulers of the nation that are referred to and refer to themselves as the servants of God. This is a great mark of humility and realization of their role. It is far too common for people in such positions to lose track of who they are and what the mission is.
The “slave metaphor” in the Torah is reserved for Moshe and Yehoshua only, however as time went on it became a major theme in our tradition for the common man as well. Our teffilot are filled with such references, usually in contrast or in combination with the “child metaphor”. We can remind ourselves of the Rosh Hashana teffila immediately after the blowing of the shofar where we say “Whether we are children or slaves…” and of course the Avinu Malkenu is meant to address God in His part of these different roles. In the Brech Shmei, recited as we open the Aron Kodesh, we declare “I am the servant of the Holy One”. Next time you open a siddur note how many there are.
The conclusion that we reached at the seder was that it seems that it is indeed an incredible “zechut” to be a servant of God, including the loss of personal freedom as a result. As Jews we are not free to behave as we best see fit, we have clear rules and regulations for all aspects of life. The unique part of such servitude is that we have chosen to enter into such a relationship. It seems to us that we do have personal autonomy and it is the challenge of Judaism to make the right decisions that will lead us closer and closer to being able to declare with great pride that we are indeed servants of God.