By Reb David
Each Passover seder re-tells the Ten Plagues that launched Israel out of Egyptian bondage, opening the Jewish people’s collective and ongoing dance with God. The first seven plagues appear in this week’s Torah portion (Vaera), stuff of movie magic and timeless legend.
What most rivets me in Vaera isn’t the plagues – the bloody Nile, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, etc. – or their symbolism for oppositions between Moses and Pharaoh (on the human political level) and between holiness and bondage (on the spiritual level). Rather, what most grabs me is Torah’s rationale for why Israelite slaves had to be free, and why we ourselves must be free now:
God said to Moses: Pharaoh is stubborn: he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning … and say to him, “The Lord, God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, ‘Let My people go that they may serve Me in the wilderness'” (Ex. 7:14-15).
The words “Let My people go!” (שַׁלַּח אֶת עַמִּי / shalach et ami) are imprinted in humanity’s consciousness. They echo in the cry of every people subjugated and denied basic rights. So many fights for freedom, most recently the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement, invoked Jews’ liberation from Egypt. But while “Let My people go!” resounds in human history, Torah’s next words, “that they may serve Me in the wilderness” (וְיַעַבְדֻנִי בַּמִּדְבָּר / vaya’avduni ba’midbar), often get lost. History’s arc bends toward freedom, but often we forget why: freedom has a purpose larger and more lasting than ourselves.
Janice Joplin sang that “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” – an idea that our enslaved forebears surely understood. Centuries of bondage took a toll: what were pride, ego and a healthy sense of self against a taskmaster’s lash? In an era when might made right, perhaps only such an enslaved, downtrodden people could become ready for the radical shift of shaking off shackles and, for the first time in history, serving no earthly master at all.
But Vaera teaches that freedom isn’t an absence of service but a change in service. Free the slaves, Moses ordered Pharaoh in God’s name, so “that they may serve Me” – God, holiness, the world. Torah’s words were critical: Pharaoh’s slaves (עבדים) instead would serve God (יעבדוני), and their first place of service, in the wilderness (במדבר), was their place to receive the Ten Commandments (עשרת הדברות) and its ethical imprint.
We are free for a purpose – to serve a higher purpose than ourselves – and spiritually speaking, by serving that higher purpose, we remain free. The opposite of this service is enslavement, whether by physical or emotional oppression, material idols, excess ego or other bondage that freights the soul. Our path to freedom treks through the place of Commandment to live ethical lives of loving service to others. All the rest is commentary.