Parashah Ponderings

From Servitude to Servitude: What’s the Difference?

Parashat Beshalach / פרשת בשל
Torah Portion: Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

During the Passover seder, we recite “Avadim hayinu. Ata b’nai chorin. We were slaves. Now we are free.” With these words we unite with our biblical ancestors and celebrate our release from subjugation to Pharaoh in Egypt. We are free!

But are we really? A look at the language in this week’s Torah portion and in earlier chapters of Exodus leaves no doubt that we are, in fact, still avadim, just to a very different master: God.

In Parashat Beshalach, moments after escaping Pharaoh’s chariots and right before our ancestors sing and dance after crossing the Sea of Reeds, the Torah says something rather curious:

“And Israel saw the great work which the Lord did upon the Egyptians; and the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord, and Moshe avdo — God’s servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31).

How ironic that Moses takes the title “avdo — God’s servant” when, only 19 verses earlier, the Torah uses the same root word — avad — to harken back to Israel’s servitude to Pharaoh. Fearful that Pharaoh’s troops would overtake them, the Israelites cry out to Moses: “It would have been better to serve Egypt as slaves — ki tov lanu avod mitzrayim — than to die in the wilderness” (Ex. 14:12). The term that best captures Israel’s relationship to their former oppressors now describes Israel’s relationship to God!

In truth, the dual usage of the term avad appears much earlier in the story. For example, Moses refers to himself as an eved, or servant, to God in his encounter with God at the burning bush (Ex. 4:10). Additionally, God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh to “let My people go that they may avaduni — serve me” (7:16). The message is that Moses and the Israelites are already servants to God even while suffering as slaves to the Egyptians. Once out of Egypt, however, Israel need only serve the One, Adonai Echad.

If, as the haggadah instructs, we are to view ourselves as if we, too, were freed from slavery in Egypt, then what does it mean for us now to be avadim to God alone, to have traded the bonds of slavery for the bonds of service to the Divine?

Each of us will answer this question differently. For many Jews, to vow allegiance to God and to serve God means to abide by the 613 mitzvot. In the most traditional communities, mitzvot are viewed as inviolable laws established by God at Mt. Sinai. For the Ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox, to be a servant of God means to submit to all God’s commands, however stringently those commands are interpreted by individual sects.

Many liberal Jews, myself included, choose to view mitzvot as something other than laws and statutes imposed upon them by a Heavenly Ruler, who metes out rewards and punishments for either obeying them or violating them. For us, mitzvot are sacred folkways that guide us on a path of Godly living. To see myself as a servant of God and to walk that path of Godliness, therefore, I must allow myself to be guided by those mitzvot, even to some extent to feel bound by them ethically, morally, and spiritually.

Regardless of how one views mitzvot, mitzvot are certainly not shackles, and servitude to the Holy One is NOT slavery. True, from the outside mitzvot appear restrictive and sometimes they feel that way from within as well. More importantly, though, mitzvot remind us of our freedom to choose God as our sovereign, to receive God’s love, and to partner with God in furthering the work of creation. As Jews, we experience our freedom through the very mitzvot that hold sway over us in one way or another.

Speaking personally, being a servant to/of/for God means devoting myself to making the whole world a place in which Godliness prevails. Our liturgy refers to this process as “l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai — to repair or perfect the world in God’s Kingdom.” Whether through prayer, through social justice or through simple acts of lovingkindness, I aim to bring into the world the goodness, compassion, and beauty that flow from the “Power that Makes for Salvation,” to borrow a term from Mordecai Kaplan, a prominent 20th century Jewish thinker. This Power, of course, is God, and it is to this Power that I give my allegiance and gladly direct my energies.

Let us be grateful that the experience in Egypt is but a distant memory. In Egypt, we were slaves to Pharaoh. Today, we are servants of the Holy One. In Egypt, we suffered in bondage. Today, our servitude provides comfort, joy, and empowerment. In Egypt, our avodah was senseless. Today, our avodah infuses our lives with holiness and meaning. Yes, we were avadim then, and we are avadim now. And, yet, today we are free.

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