Bo — 5771 — Let My People Go: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

09/01/2011 at 01:11 Leave a comment

“Let My People Go: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”

Parashat Bo

8 January 2011

Neil F. Blumofe


We have heard the familiar refrain, “let my people go,” and perhaps an appropriate response to this would be, “let them go to do what?”  If all of us were suddenly free from our obligations, cut loose from our responsibilities, cloven from our routine, what would we do with ourselves?  Our exploration of the Torah and our celebration of Pesach encourage us to yearn for freedom, to place a movement away from slavery and into the great wilds towards the Promised Land as our highest priority and value – and yet, once we break on through, what are we supposed to do, next?


As Jews, we are to make order from chaos – bringing a thoughtful and deliberate seder to a cavernous void.  Yet we may believe as Kris Kristofferson wrote: “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” and implied in this is the absence of boundaries, the removal of restrictions and the erasure of margins.  And now, allowing us to reflect on this, what would we do with this kind of divested, absolute freedom?  What do we do when we truly have nothing left to lose?


Our rabbinic tradition describes someone who is truly free as one who is an oseik b’talmud torah – one who actively engages in matters of Torah.  And so we can ask, what are matters of Torah – on a micro level, is it time reserved for a bit of study of the Torah portion or another sacred text during the week?  Or, on a macro level, is it, over a lifetime, developing a spiritual discipline and outlook that sees all matters of life as related to and invested in concepts revealed in our rabbinic traditions?  It is certainly within our interests – our survival as a people, to attract and maintain a practice of privileging Torah in our everyday lives, however, I don’t think that this is what the words in the Torah themselves are expressly driving at – rather, when the Torah relates that God spoke to Moshe, teaching him to tell Pharaoh, sha’lach et ami, let my people go, there is another word in the verse — v’ya’avduni – which means – let them go to serve God.  This is not some half-baked plan that demands that Pharaoh release the Hebrews, helter-skelter because of the love of freedom in general – rather, the command to let my people go is an insistence that the people be allowed to perform avodah, service for God – and it is through this avodah that the enterprise of the Exodus is launched.


It is this avodah that is the path to freedom and what God demands – avodat haShem that can be performed anywhere and in any place – even while enslaved.  It seems that it is Pharaoh who insists that his oppressed people cannot serve two masters at once – and our later rabbinic sages would agree with Pharaoh: the case for freedom is put into absolute terms – it’s either Pharaoh or haShem – you can’t have both.


And yet, looking at our lives, it seems evident that many of us are beholden to more than one boss at one time, that we do hold fast to both God and a Pharaoh. We tell ourselves that we are pulled in many different directions at once – barely having time to sufficiently complete our tasks at hand, or leaving essential things deferred while we attempt to escape more immediately in some other less taxing activity.


While it is true that once we have left Egypt, past the dangers of Pharaoh and his army, the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai – here, even while slaves in Egypt – God gives us the tools for freedom – gives us ways to perform avodat haShem while in servitude to another taskmaster.  And what is it that God gives us, even while Pharaoh’s heart continued to be set against us and things are looking grim – for our Torah states: v’lo shilach et b’nei yisrael mei’artso – and Pharaoh did not send the children of Israel from his land?  Even while trapped in a no-win, hopeless situation, God gives us the freedom of shaping our own time, and with this core gift comes the associations of gaining meaning in our life – again, within the harsh boundaries of servitude — even before a dramatic rescue and exodus from Egypt.


It is remarkable that within the narrative of the plagues – just before the tenth and final one – our Torah carefully outlines the significance of time for us — the importance of honoring the New Moon, and the celebration of freedom while still slaves in Egypt.  What do these two observances signify?  First, the New Moon, or Rosh Hodesh, is the blueprint for our entire calendar – all Festivals derive from knowing the cycles of the moon – and too, celebrating the waxing and the waning of the moon is a vital lesson for us – to celebrate renewal and our ability to endure in a dark time past any once and future Pharaoh.


Secondly, celebrating Pesach while still in Egypt allows the people to look past their own individual, gloomy predicaments and draw strength from each other – celebrating in community at once leavens sorrow and multiplies joy.  This kind of communal experience brings everyone assurance and self-respect and hope out of a spiritual opaqueness and physical degradation – out of a spiritual confusion and past any physical limitations.  Out of such spiritual and physical powerlessness comes the defiant act of celebrating freedom, even in a present non-existent freedom.


Constantly in our liturgy and throughout our year we give thanks for the miracle of yetziat mitzrayim – the Exodus from Egypt.  However, here just before this spectacular exit, we are taught an eternal lesson that transcends any historical time and place.  In any situation, we are given the power to order our universe, our physical world by keeping track of the moon – as it appears and as it hides and also we can determine our spiritual life by recognizing our freedom even in the most unlikely of places.


In dedicating our lives to serving God it is in this service, this avodah, that we can find freedom.  Freedom is not just another word for nothing left to lose – rather it is a way of making sense of a world that seems often times disappointing, brutish, and short.  This kind of freedom – avodat haShem — gives us purpose inside and out – it allows us to adjust our attitude, for our attitude is everything – and with a shift in attitude comes a naming of our fears and a transcendence of our present circumstances – whether plentiful or challenging.  In recognizing that our Torah is giving us the gift of knowing freedom from within slavery – it allows us to positively say let my people go – with purpose.


Shabbat Shalom.




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Va’eira — 5771 — Thinking While Drinking Birkat haTefillah II — Why Do We Pray?

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