The Jewish concept of freedom is not solely about escaping bondage. It’s not freedom “from,” it’s freedom “to.”
If the story of the Exodus from Egypt was just about freedom from slavery it would not have become the foundational story of the Israelites nor the central story of the Jewish people throughout the ages.
Passover is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish people's liberation from slavery and Exodus from Egypt. Its Hebrew name is Pesakh. Its name derives from the tenth plague, in which God "passed over" the homes of the Jewish firstborn, slaying only the Egyptian firstborn. Passover is celebrated for a week, and many diaspora Jews celebrate for eight days. The holiday begins at home at a seder meal and ritual the first (and sometimes second) night. Jews tell the story of the Exodus using a text called the haggadah, and eat specific food (matzah, maror, haroset, etc). is not a story of freedom for its own sake. In fact, our liturgy has little to say about freedom as a freestanding ideal. There are precious few prayers about freedom as an independent value. In Birkot Hashachar we thank God for our individual freedoms twice, with the blessings: שלא עשני עבד and מתיר אסורים; that is, “who made me not a slave” and “who frees the captive.” These lines are based on Tehillim (Psalms) 146:7. (Note that in the Reform Mishkan T’fillah שלא עשני עבד is replaced by שעשני בן/בת חורין, “who made me free.”)
The Jewish concept of freedom is not solely about escaping bondage. It’s not freedom “from,” it’s freedom “to.” Most Jewish prayers for redemption are tied to the idea of service to God. In Exodus, liberation from Pharaoh is for the specific purpose of serving God. This is not “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; this is freedom with responsibility. Judaism asserts that freedom from bondage is for the specific purpose of expressing our relationship with God. It is the freedom to choose to serve God (traditionally defined as accepting the covenant of The Five Books of Moses, and the foundation of all of Jewish life and lore. The Torah is considered the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and study of the Torah is a high mitzvah. The Torah itself a scroll that is hand lettered on parchment, elaborately dressed and decorated, and stored in a decorative ark. It is chanted aloud on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, according to a yearly cycle. Sometimes "Torah" is used as a colloquial term for Jewish learning and narrative in general.).
The emphasis on freedom to serve God is reflected in these passages:
- “Then Adonai said unto The quintessential Jewish leader who spoke face to face with God, unlike any other prophet, and who freed the people from Egypt, led them through the desert for forty years, and received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. His Hebrew name is Moshe.: ‘Go in unto Pharaoh, and tell him: Thus says Adonai, the God of the Hebrews: Let My people go, that they may serve Me” (Ex. 9:1)
- “…I have set before thee life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that thou may live, thou and thy seed; to love the LORD thy God, to hearken to God’s voice, and to cleave to God; for that is thy life, and the length of thy days…” (Deut. 30:19–20)
Freedom opens a path to accepting a covenantal relationship with God, to embracing Torah, and to binding oneself to God. For our freedom to have meaning, we must choose God’s rule, we must choose Torah; it is not forced upon us.
In Egypt, the Israelites reached a fantastic spiritual low; the sages say that they knew that they were Israelites—they knew that some special connection existed between them and God—but that they had forgotten what it meant, what to do, how to “be” Israelites.
Passover is z’man heiruteinu, “the time of our freedom.” R. Joshua ben Levi says: “… And it says (Exodus 32:16): ‘And the tablets are the work of God, and the writing is God’s writing, engraved on the tablets.’ Don’t read the text as hakhrut’ (engraved) but rather as heirut’ (liberty)—for there is no free individual, except for the one who labors in the Torah…” (Avot 6:2).
The Season of Freedom
This is the season of freedom:
Of freedom from the will of tyrants,
Of freedom from the bondage of self,
To become a nation and a people.
This is the season of release:
Of release from captivity and oppression,
Of release from a foreign land,
To receive G-d’s Holy Word.
This is the season of redemption:
Of redeeming our bodies and souls,
Of redeeming our strength and power,
In service to Am Yisroel.
This is the season of freedom:
Of reliving the ancient journey,
Of remembering the treacherous path.
This is the season that calls us to stand together,
The season that summons us to G-d’s Law,
The season that leads us home.
© 2017 CCAR Press from This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day
Author’s Note: This column is an adaptation of a lesson plan written for JTeach called Freedom Prayers and Modern Day Slavery.
Alden Solovy is a Jewish poet, liturgist and teacher whose prayers have been used by people of all faiths around the world. The author of Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing, his nearly 600 new prayers appear in multiple anthologies, prayer books and websites. His work can be found at http://tobendlight.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo by Alden Solovy.