by Rabbi Jennifer Jaech
Recently a young woman from our congregation asked me a question about her bat mitzvah Torah portion. She wanted to know why the Torah permitted Israelites to own slaves, when the Israelites themselves had just been released from slavery. She could not understand why the Israelites would want to do to others the wrong that had been done to them.
In responding to her insightful question, we should first observe that the Israelites were not slaves in the way that we understand slavery. Over a decade ago, Rabbi David Wolpe created a stir when he said publicly during Passover that the Torah’s story about the Exodus from Egypt has no historical evidence to support it. But Rabbi Wolpe was only repeating something that archeologists had said for well over two decades earlier.
Does this mean that the Israelites were never oppressed by Egypt? Not at all.
At the height of the Egyptian empire, from about the 16th to the late 12th century BCE, Egypt occupied Canaan. Local Canaanites (including Israelites) were rounded up and forced to work on land held by the Pharaoh. From the Amarna letters, correspondence between Pharaoh’s court and the outlying provinces dating from the 14th century BCE, it is clear that the Egyptians forced the Israelites into state labor.
Our ancestors had to work for Pharaoh at the expense of their own fields and flocks, but they were not household slaves – commodities to be bought and sold. The economy of ancient Israel may have depended on the use of household slaves, so our ancestors “reformed” the institution of slavery, but didn’t abolish it.
Also, I think the Israelites may not have viewed “freedom” in the same way that we do. We modern Americans define “freedom” as “being able to do whatever we want.” We don’t want to be forced or obligated to do things.
That wasn’t the perspective in ancient Israel. The Torah teaches that the Israelites were freed from servitude to Egypt in order to be God’s servants. The Torah limits the use of Israelites as slaves because they are God’s slaves, “whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude” (Lev. 25: 42).
Our ancestors didn’t view their freedom as the ability to do whatever they wanted. Believing that they were meant to be God’s servants rather than Pharaoh’s, the writers of the Torah taught that we left bondage to Egypt in order to assume the obligations of the covenant at Sinai.
So what meaning does this teaching have for us today?
Perhaps it is time to add a new dimension to our definition of “freedom.” Imagine how empty our lives would feel if we were always free to “do whatever we wanted.” Imagine if we didn’t feel any obligation to others: to our families, our friends, our work, or our community. Imagine how empty our hearts would be if we thought only about ourselves and our own needs. We would have no sense of a larger purpose in life.
Our obligations to others are what give our lives shape and meaning. We are meant to be in the service of something larger than ourselves. So in this sense, it is no shame to be “in servitude,” as long as we are not serving a Pharaoh.
The true value of our freedom is that we can make the choices about whom, or what, we will serve. May we ever choose wisely!
Rabbi Jennifer Jaech is the rabbi at Temple Israel of Northern Westchester and co-chair of Reform Jewish Voice of New York State.