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To Live a Life of Service (Va’era)

The words “freedom,” “liberty,” and all related terms, appear in the Declaration of Independence five times. They appear in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen eight times. They appear in the Magna Carta twenty-eight times and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights thirty-one times. But they do not appear in the Biblical narrative of the Exodus even once.

There are fifteen chapters which describe the redemption of the Israelite slaves from Egypt, and yet nowhere in those chapters do we find the root ח.פ.ש – the Bible’s word for “free.” The absence of this term is baffling. It invites us to reconsider what in fact the Exodus represents, from a Biblical perspective.

Protests on Behalf of Soviet Jewry. Note the text of the sign: "Let my people go!"

Protests on Behalf of Soviet Jewry. Note the text of the sign: “Let my people go!”

In this week’s Torah portion, Moshe confronts Pharaoh and demands that he release the Israelites from bondage. Historically, Moshe’s petition has been summarized in four words: “Let my people go.” These words became the chorus to a popular Negro spiritual in the days of the Underground Railroad, and a slogan of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry before the fall of the Iron Curtain. They certainly make for a powerful catchphrase. If we return to our sources, however, we realize that this catchphrase has only been quoted in part. The full text, which appears several times throughout the story of the Exodus, looks like this:

  • And you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘The Lord God of the Hebrews sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, so that they may serve Me in the desert,” but behold, until now, you have not hearkened. (Exodus 7:16)
  • The Lord said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘So said the Lord, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me.” (Exodus 7:26)
  • And the Lord said to Moses, “Arise early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh, behold, he is going out to the water, and you shall say to him, ‘So said the Lord, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me.” (Exodus 8:16)
  • The Lord said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh and speak to him, ‘So said the Lord, God of the Hebrews, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.” (Exodus 9:1)
  • The Lord said to Moses, “Rise early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘So said the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, “Let My people go so that they may serve Me.” (Exodus 9:13)
  •  So Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh and said to him, “So said the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go, and they may serve Me.”  (Exodus 10:3)

There is, of course, tremendous irony in Moshe’s request. Moshe does not ask Pharaoh to release the Israelites so that they can enjoy their freedom; he asks Pharaoh to release the Israelites so that they can serve. Freedom, per se, does not appear to be the goal of the Israelite revolution. What is?

We already saw the answer in the verses quoted above. Whereas ח.פ.ש, “freedom,” receives no mention in our narrative, there is another root which does appear frequently – sixty-seven times, in fact. That root is ע.ב.ד: “work” — or, in context, “service.” This word – a leitwort, or “leading word,” as we explained a few weeks ago – shows up in such staggering proportion throughout our narrative that there can be no missing its thematic thrust.

But “ע.ב.ד” is not a new word in Tanach. We actually find it for the first time in the Bible’s second chapter:

And God took man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it  [לעבדה] and to guard it (Genesis 2:15).

On the eve of creation, as on the eve of the Exodus, God tells man that he must ע.ב.ד – that he must “serve.” There’s a theme developing here. We get the sense, in fact, that this “service” – this fulfillment of one’s obligations, both to God and to man – functions as a prerequisite of sorts: it is the condition by which man gains his freedom, and indeed, the purpose for which he is granted the gift of life in the first place. From the Torah’s perspective, in other words, neither life nor liberty is self-justified or self-contained. Both are means which point to ends beyond themselves.

This collectivist, even transcendental imperative can be difficult for us to come to terms with, particularly because our society is rooted in the competing school of thought known as individualism. Indeed, individualism is one of the deepest running traditions in Western intellectual history. Mill, for instance, taught that “over one’s mind and over one’s body, the individual is sovereign.” Thoreau argued that “we should be men first, and subjects afterwards.” Montaigne advised, “pledge [yourself] to no cause, except by the fact that [you] approve of it.” These influential thinkers, and others like them, favored autonomy over authority and freedom over responsibilityTheirs is an attractive philosophy in some respects, and a well-founded one, to be sure. But it is not the philosophy advocated in this week’s Torah portion.

This week’s Torah portion presents a vision of devotion, commitment and loyalty, to God and to each other. In Jewish tradition, freedom does not mean that we get to define right from wrong — only that we get to choose between the two. To that end, R. Akiva Tatz points out, our legal system is not phrased in the language of rights. It is phrased, instead, in the language of obligations. Perhaps the most instructive example in this regard is Judaism’s unique way of looking at the act of aiding others. In English, we call such an act “charity:” a word derived from the French for “compassion” or “benevolence,” implying a going beyond the call of duty. By contrast, R. Jonathan Sacks observesthe Jewish word for such an act is צדקה: a word derived from the Hebrew for “justice” or “fairness,” so that the act belongs squarely within one’s call of duty. In Torah thinking, helping others is not just a nice thing to do. It is the right thing to do. And it is obligatory for that very reason.

Yosef Karduner sings 'V'taher Libenu:' 'May You Purify our hearts to serve You authentically.'

Hillel the Elder asked himself two important questions. The first was: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” The second was: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” There’s an essential difference between the issues which these questions address, and Hillel’s formulation reflects that distinction. When we care for ourselves, Hillel teaches us, we address a practical concern: “who will be for me?” When we care for others, we address an existential one: “what am I?”

Hillel doesn’t find his identity in the freedom that comes with independence, but in the obligations that come with interdependence. This is in keeping with the vision laid out in this week’s Torah portion. “The meaning of a system,” R. Sacks teaches, “always lies beyond that system.” His principle is true on the political level, with regards to liberty, and it is true on the ontological level, with regards to life itself. To live a life of meaning is to live a life of connection, and specifically, a life of connection through service: the service of gratitude, to God, and the service of giving, to other human beings.

As we recite in our prayers each Shabbat, וטהר לבנו לעבדך באמת: May You purify our hearts to serve You authentically.

Shabbat shalom!


  1. Jonathan Tavin says:

    I liked this a lot. Just one correction: I believe we say וטהר לבינו לעבדך באמת only on shabbat and yom tov. We do, however, say similar phrases every day shabbat shalom Jonathan Tav

    • alexmaged says:

      Thanks Jonathan! How ironic — I actually caught that mistake and edited it (or so I thought) before publishing. It’s been fixed now, thanks for pointing it out 🙂 Shabbat shalom!


  2. Menachem Copperman says:

    your words fit in with the famous opening of Mesillat Yesharim:
    “יסוד החסידות ושורש העבודה התמימה הוא שידע האדם מה חובתו בעולמו ובמה הוא עמל בכל ימי חייו”

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