The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1
The Call to Freedom

by Avraham ben Yaakov

Much of the history of humanity has been the story of one person, group or nation ruling over others in various guises under different names. Very early on those who were more assertive took control over the more compliant, building great empires with complex hierarchies of leaders and subjects "from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the slave woman that is behind the mill." (Exodus 11:5).

The first recorded Biblical tyrant was Nimrod, who was "a mighty hunter before God" ruling over a vast empire (Genesis 10:8-10). It is ironic that Nimrod was the son of Kush, firstborn son of Ham, whom Noah had cursed to be a slave of his more civilized brothers (ibid. 9:25-27). Likewise, Ham's second son Mitzraim - Egypt - spawned the greatest slave system of antiquity and held sway over the entire then-known world (Gen. 41:57).

As we now enter the book of Exodus, we embark on the story of God's overthrow of the Egyptian tyrant to redeem His "firstborn son" Israel (Ex. 4:22) from slavery. This drama takes up our present portion and the three that follow it, and is the central historical event and reference point throughout the rest of the Five Books of Moses, a paradigmatic tale of freedom that comes to teach all the generations until today.

The Exodus came to correct the very deep flaw in humanity through which "slaves go on horses while princes walk like slaves on the ground" (Ecclesiastes 10:7) - as when tyrannical rulers take control and tread precious souls underfoot the sake of their own mundane power, pleasure, wealth and glory. The story of the Exodus offers eternal hope to all humanity that the different kinds of oppressive tyrannies that keep people enslaved physically and mentally will eventually be cast down, just as "the horse and its rider did He cast into the sea" (Exodus 15:1) revealing the truth that no mortal can truly rule, because only "God will rule for ever and ever" (ibid. v. 18).

The Torah certainly favors enlightened government, as in the reign of King Solomon, who "held sway over the whole of the west of the Euphrates. and was at peace with all his subjects around" (I Kings 5:4). But the exile of Israel under Pharoah in Egypt was the paradigm of tyranny gone mad, where the government begins to oppress and even exterminate its own population for fear of a revolution (Exodus 1:22).

The Children of Israel were the seed of the illustrious Patriarchs, yet in Exile in Egypt they fell to a level where they themselves felt compelled to serve their masters. Similarly throughout history until today many of the oppressed tend to internalize their oppressors' perceptions of them. It is not only through conquest that one group or people are forced to submit to another. Often the ruled endure their degradation for the sake of supposed protection, livelihood and other benefits for which they hope for from their rulers.

Moses came not to instigate a political slave rebellion but to shift a whole generation's perception of what is the purpose of our lives in this world. The Children of Israel walked out free from Egypt when they witnessed God submitting the lives and ecology of their Egyptian masters to massive attacks from every direction, proving that it is not man who rules but God alone, and Israel preferred to serve this God.

Freedom is a term that has many different connotations for different people. The freedom to which God called Israel was not the freedom to do as you please and follow every human impulse no matter where it may lead. Nor was it only the simple political freedom to which many aspire, for God's freedom can be experienced even under oppression and in slavery. This is because God's freedom is an internal attitude of freedom from the mundane world that is granted within us to the extent that we are willing to submit ourselves to God's rule and His Code.

When God called Moses to his mission to save the Children of Israel, He guaranteed him that the proof of the divinity of his ministry would come when he would "bring the people out of Egypt and they will serve God on this mountain" (Exodus 3:12) - Mount Sinai, where Israel would later receive the Torah. The purpose of the Exodus was not to grant license to do anything one wishes, but to bring the people to a higher service, the service of the One God, that would free them from mental servitude to the mundane world.

The Torah for Israel and the Seven Universal Laws for the Children of Noah, the nations of the world, are the Code of service to the One God that grants freedom from mundane service. Even under actual servitude, the servant of God is not a servant of man.

Thus the rabbis tell that when the tyrant king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, threatened to burn Daniel's three companions alive if they would not bow to his idol (Daniel ch. 3), they replied: "You may be king over us when it comes to taxes, but to govern us in services and beliefs, you and a dog are equal" (Vayikra Rabba #33, Bamidbar #15).

True inner freedom comes through submission to the service of God by following His commandments.




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