I learned the following Yehuad Halevi poem back in high school:
עבדי זמן, עבדי עבדים הם
עבד ה’ לבדו חופשי
על כן בבקש כל אנוש חלקו
חלקי עם ה’ אמרה נפשי
Here is my translation:
Time-bound servants – are slaves of other slaves
The servant of G-d, he alone is free
Therefore, when each human asked for their lot
I am with Hashem, said my soul to me
The issue and slavery and freedom is so pivotal that most of the Torah is dedicated just to that. To this day, a Jew is not supposed to eat even a piece of bread without blessing afterwards and mentioning “yetzi’at mitzrayim”, the Exodus from Egypt. The word mitzrayim literally means, “a narrow straight”, and, by contrast, the Land of Israel is referred to as “eretz tova u’rechava”, a wide and spacious place. Is this a Jewish Agency aliya sales pitch? Perhaps. Or perhaps “narrow” and “spacious” have little to do with the physical dimension of a place, because, after all Egypt is huge, Israel is small. So what is it about Egypt that was “narrow”? Slavery is, in essence, to “narrow” someone’s life and existence. The Israelites sank deeper and deeper into “slavery”, into “narrow mindedness”. In Hebrew, the same root gives us not only tzar (narrow) and mitzrayim (Egypt) but also the word tzarot, trouble, or as it’s better known in Yiddish, tzures.
What is slavery? It means we aren’t “free”. But what are these terms? We often equate freedom with “doing whatever I want”, but is that true freedom? Influenced by so many pulls – commercials on every street corner, the Jones’ new car, the newspapers, tv, and internet which enter our own homes to bombard us with crafty messages from within – are we truly “free”?
In his 4 succinct lines, Yehuda Halevi warns us that at the end of the day, what we can choose is only who we worship, not if.
This past Tuesday, Christmas eve, felt a little like “erev chag” here – people rushed to get their shopping done, stores closed early, the roads were busy with everyone trying to get home in time, and later that evening, the streets were still, peaceful and quiet all around. For just one day, something was more important. By contrast, don’t even get me started about Black Friday, and the pilgrimage festival to the modern temples; the fact that people have been trampled to death by others, dedicated to their idols and their worship.
The Torah understands the complexity of the issue. In this week’s portion, the beginning of the Ten Plagues, we’re also told that one can’t just be magically pulled out from slavery. It took time to get into it, and it will take time to get out. It necessitates a mind change and therefore needs stages along the way. The Children of Israel are described as having “kotzer ru’ach”, physically, shortness of breath, but also spiritually, shortness of spirit. That is the first thing to fix. The plagues don’t just try to impress Pharaoh but first and foremost give hope to the slaves, reminding them that there is something higher, another way of life and existence out there they should want to pursue. Then the journey can begin.
But, even after the magnificent power demonstration, the Children of Israel will not be sent to the desert “to do whatever they want”. The famous song “Let My People Go”, left out the last word:
“שלח עמי ויעבדוני”
Let My people go so they can worship Me”, says G-d, and we’re back to Yehuda Halevi. We’re called to choose, not freedom as recklessness but as a form of committed relationship.