Passover 5781

Here’s something a little different from my usual subject matter: an attempt at some Jewish philosophy.

This is our second year of video seders. While we’re enjoying religious freedom but our ability to move around and meet each other is curtailed, it seems fit to talk about freedom as one of the big themes of Pesach.

The first chapter of Exodus is a masterpiece of compact narration: a despot uses a spurious pretext to divide his nation and enslave a group of people in just six verses. Two more verses describe the unchanging scenery of oppression: cruel guards, demeaning labour, and the casual repression of what we would now call liberties.

This happens in a historical context when slavery is a part of life: it’s how a country would exploit its power. There is no mention of a struggle, because a conquest of people may be achieved by attrition instead of war. To modern readers, this too looks familiar.

The Hebrew word for ‘free’, chofshi, is used to express the dream of nationhood in the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. But it doesn’t get its first Biblical mention until Deuteronomy 15, concerning the liberation of slaves in the seventh year. Incidentally, the other expression we use in the seder, ‘free men’ (b’nei chorin) doesn’t appear in the Bible at all.

We are bound by laws concerning slavery that allowed us to participate — albeit in a way that our contemporaries, who maintained permanent slave castes, would not have recognised. Incidentally, the commandments relating to the seventh year serve as an ancient precaution against unchecked accumulation of wealth and debt, and of the abuse that follows. As the Israelites both acknowledged this eternal problem and presented an early mitigation strategy, we should not be surprised that Jews ended up taking the blame for both Capitalism and Communism.

Moses was not asking for absolute freedom for his people, but for permission for them to take a holiday to acknowledge a better master. In fact, the concept of absolute freedom has no meaning in our philosophy. Pharaoh, we are told, was given the strength to make his decision freely but, in the very next verse [Exodus 7:4], his answer is predicted before he utters it himself. A question clearly arises from this: if somebody is given an apparently free choice but their answer is assumed to be inevitable, is it actually a free choice? Modern philosophy will tell you that chaos is a cost of freedom: if you are truly free to choose, your decision, and humanity en masse, will be unpredictable. But the Plagues are seen to our commentators as an inevitable demonstration of supremacy, intended to be seen by every participant in the Exodus story. We express pity; our rabbis debate adding plagues in the Haggadah; but our text does not contemplate that some might have been subtracted.

The word avodim: avodim chayyinu — ‘we were slaves’, is always translated as slaves in this context, but simply means labourers. The work carried out in the Temple by priests is called avodah: the same word repurposed as a verb. Freedom in our religion was, and still is, the chance to bypass as much human bureaucracy, corruption, and tyranny as possible, and work directly for our boss’s boss. The inexorable power struggles play out over the next three books of the Bible: the Golden Calf, Yithro, Korach, Moses and the rock … Israelites are called a stiff-necked people with good reason. A redeemed slave has many reasons to distrust Moses and Aaron’s mediation even while witnessing God’s intercession on their behalf.

At the root of Judaism, then, is a philosophy of choosing your master, and living with the consequences. You might, for reasons of your own, elect to become a slave. Jewish law will let you, but only for a time. You may enslave yourself to your passions or to wealth, but we are warned of the many ways in which this will go badly. And when we live within any nation, however it values liberty, we are urged to pray for its peace and welfare, and to adopt their laws as closely as we keep our own: we must wear two yokes of servitude.

Stuck at home, preparing for a Zoom seder, one can become hyper-aware of the weight of these and other yokes: those of maintaining our own wellbeing; those of our employers; those that our country demands, and those we have borrowed from less fortunate people around us whose shoulders are not so broad. We carry more than usual, and risk the danger of fewer people around when we start to stumble.

Tonight, as in every seder, we acknowledge at both ends of the night that we cannot know where our next seder will be. In good times, our hope is a product of freedom and, in bad times, of servitude. It is as true this year as it has ever been, and it is never a consolation that Jews have proclaimed the same words in far darker times.

What I hope is a consolation, then, is to focus on the message of Jewish redemption. Life must be lived in servitude either to God or to Pharaoh; an authentic God or a despot; a merciful and understanding master or a manipulative tyrant.

This coming year, with so many voices calling for our attention, may we all be given the strength and wisdom to contemplate and choose whose yokes we will wear.

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