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September 04, 2011 Back

We are all familiar with the disadvantages of being a slave, but one could argue that there are many more advantages to such a life. One the one hand, you have no freedom to plan your day. But on the other hand, you have no burden of responsibility for another person or anyone, for that matter. You do what you’re told and that’s all there is to it. So although the life of a slave is dull, boring, without ambition and without progress, the life of a slave is secure (as long as he does his job) and he doesn’t have to worry about advancing in the world or changing the world, for a man without freedom is a man without influence.

The human being faces a similar struggle in daily life. On the one hand we are pushed by our freedom to continually change the world, to make it better, to move up and to advance. On the other hand, we don’t want to see ourselves as responsible for the world’s improvement. The urge to shirk responsibility and place the burden on someone else can be relentless, both on a micro and a macro level. One part of us just wants to get by unnoticed, and another part of us wants to be remarkable. It is not uncommon to despair from the latter.

When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, they were a people without ambition, without vision, and almost without hope. And yet they physically thrived, as is written in the book of Exodus. The more Pharaoh would inflict them, the more they would grow and thrive and flourish, with early Rabbinic commentators like Rashi even suggesting that each Jewish woman had octuplets nearly every time, comparing the numbers at the advent of Egyptian slavery with the numbers at the exodus and the available years in between. This number can be seen as illustrative, though the fact that the Israelites kept multiplying clearly had the Egyptians disturbed.

Yet, mentally, the Israelites were in complete anguish. They screamed out to God but did not even pay attention to Moses when he announced that God was about to deliver them. They were too despondent. Nevertheless, amazingly, Rabbinic Midrash, or exegetical commentary, explains that only one fifth of the Israelite nation actually left Egypt, while the rest chose to stay, freedom being too frightening a prospect for them. Even among those that left, there were dominant elements that yearned to go back and be slaves again. Freedom was just too much responsibility.

The Israelites, who eventually became known as Jews and the founders of Judaism, had the same struggle that many have today. That is, they did not want to be slaves, but freedom is a very difficult gift. It means you can do anything you want, and therefore you are responsible for your actions.

Judaism began with the Exodus because one of the strongest impulses a human has is to shirk responsibility and blame someone else for the state of things as they are. The Exodus from Egypt teaches that freedom, when given, cannot be returned, and from then on out, the Jewish people and the world at large had the responsibility to make the Earth a better place.

To this effect, the Torah reinforced this conclusion with an actual commandment. It is actually one of the 613 commandments. That commandment is to never again return to the land of Egypt. Right before the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites were screaming to each other about what to do. In response, God told the people, “You will never, ever see the Egyptians again,” and proceeded to drown them in the Sea.

From this verse, the Rabbis interpret that the Jews may never return to Egypt as a people. But the verse’s deeper meaning is perhaps God telling the people that slavery is behind them forever. They are now free, and they will never again be slaves. They now have the responsibility to build their own country, their own society, and fulfill their mission, and there is no way out but to complete it. Such is the call of Judaism. Freedom is a permanent gift.

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