"Let My People Go!" - Wait, There's More
by: Cheryl Pedersen
"Let My people go!" Now there's a great little catchphrase. We read it throughout the Exodus, Moses pleading with Pharaoh, but we've also heard it since then. It's the perfect slogan---no more than three or four words. It's been used by slaves in Mississippi, Jews in the former Soviet Union, Christians in regard to political and religious prisoners, and blacks in Soweto, South Africa. Most famously it became the motto for the civil rights movement of the sixties as they linked arms and sang that old spiritual that begins, "Go down, Moses." More recently it's become a silly meme attached to almost any kind of recreational activity. Let my people go surfing! Let my people go fishing!
The thing is, that's just a truncated version of what Moses said. The precise words were "Shalach ami v'yaavduni." translated "Let My people go that they may serve Me." Funny how we grab just the portion that will serve a purpose. "V'yaavduni," "that they may serve Me" got lost in the shuffle. Of course it's much more powerful to demand that Pharaoh, or whichever entity or government is holding people against their will, let the people go. The why seems significantly less important. Be released from slavery so you can serve God? Sounds like a bad trade---one form of servitude for another.
It was this very phrase that was used by Jews around world in the early 70's. They were demanding the Russian government allow Jews within their borders to leave if they wished. The rallying cry was just like Moses: "Let My people go!" They, too, left out the reason for the demand, that they might serve God. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in political liberty that we forget that the primary purpose of freedom is to step into responsibility as a free citizen. Free to exercise your religion, to fulfill mitzvah. When demonstrators cry for the freedom of another people, they don't often think about what freedom is really all about. What they want the captives to do with all that freedom.
According to Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Chabad-Lubavitch emissary serving the Jewish Community in Johannesburg, South Africa, "It is clear that political freedom minus spiritual purpose equals disillusionment."
So here are the Israelites ready to head into the desert, a vast wilderness about which they know nothing. Pharaoh has finally conceded and let them go. At the end of this week's parsha we read about how the approximately two million men, women, and children journeyed from Rameses to Succoth along with a mixed multitude from among the Egyptian people. They had their herds and flocks and some unleavened bread prepared for the trip. What was the first thing Moses talked about? Passover as an annual celebration. He left no detail out from the requirement of circumcision to participate, to the seven days they should celebrate, to the way to answer a child's question. It's not a "Rah Rah! You're finally free" sort of speech. It's a reminder of the second part of his plea to Pharaoh, "that they may serve Me."
We are constantly looking for freedom. We want freedom from financial obligations. We want freedom to travel. We want freedom to make choices that are ours alone to make. We want freedom to say and do as we please. That's what preparation for retirement is certainly all about. We want to divest ourselves of those things that will free us to stop working.
We want freedom. The question is what will we do with all that freedom. When you pay off the car or the new flooring or the mortgage, what will you do with that money? Do you invest it in a brand new car, another big home project, a trip around the world? You want freedom to travel? Where will you go and what will you do that will make a difference? We want to say and do as we please, but what does that entail? How many confirmands or b'nai mitzvahs for that matter, reach this spiritual milestone and become more involved in their church or synagogue? How many see it as an acceptance of new responsibilities within their congregation and how many see it as a "graduation" from religious observance?
What is freedom and what do we do with it? I am free to say what I want (Twitter, Facebook, and most of the internet excluded), but am I responsible with my words? And does being responsible with my words apply only in a political context? Or is it about how I speak to and about others? Being free to do what I want if we are talking about serving God means taking responsibility to help others, to be of service within my community. Being financially free means I can give more, not spend more on myself, right?
The LORD spoke to Moses about all these things and He ended with this: "There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you." (Exodus 12:49). There are a couple of ways to look at this. First of all, we might say that all of Jewish law applies to all people. One law, right? One God? It applies to the citizen (read Jew in this context) and the stranger dwelling among you. From this perspective, Passover is something that should be celebrated by all people who wish to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Sabbath should be observed by all people. Kosher is for everyone.
Another way to view it is that Jews---those citizens mentioned---are required to treat all people, even those strangers or foreigners in their midst, fairly and justly. They are to care for all who are sick and poor, Jewish or not. It is a statement that extols the innate worth of all human beings and their right to equal treatment under the law.
That's what the Israelites were set free to do---ensure that all people were given the same opportunities as they were to be free under the mantle of God's great care. That's what we should celebrate as well. The story of the Exodus is not just the story of the beginning of a nation, it's the story of us. We all seek freedom in dozens of ways every single day. We want to be free not just from enslavement of one sort or another, but free to be all that God intends us to be. I am free to serve God in a way that honors Him and my fellow travelers on this planet. It's not freedom FROM responsibility. It's freedom to BE responsible for myself and for others.
Hopefully, this gives you a new perspective on what freedom means. When you seek freedom for this, that, or the other thing, remind yourself that you are not just free from, you are free to be who God put you on this earth to be. Act accordingly.