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The Spring of Civilization

Moses Didn’t Only Free Slaves; He Changed the Vocabulary of Humanity

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • March 26, 2015
  • |
  • 6 Nisan 5775
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Class Summary:

“If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we, our children and our children's children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” Really? We would still be slaves in Egypt? It seems far-fetched to declare that if G-d would have not taken us out of Egypt 3327 years ago, we would have still been enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.

In honor of Menucha Rochel bas Gilah Elka for a complete and speedy recovery.

It’s the Mentality

An old Jerusalem Jew spent his life as a collector for a Yeshiva. He would walk around the city of Jerusalem every day asking for money. He would wake up every morning at the crack of dawn, immerse in the mikvah and pray. He would then start his daily rounds of collecting. From building to building he would drag his weary feet, trudge up and down the winding staircases of the old city’s archaic buildings. “If only,” he would sometimes think to himself, “there were no buildings in the Jerusalem, just single story homes. How much easier my life would be!”

One day, one of his steady customer’s asked him “Reb Meilach, what would you do if you won the Mega Million Lottery?”

Meilach thought for a moment and replied: “I would install elevators in all the buildings, that way I would not have to climb the steps anymore.”

What If?

“If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we, our children and our children's children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”-- From the Haggadah

Really? We would still be slaves in Egypt? It seems far-fetched to declare that if G-d would have not taken us out of Egypt 3329 years ago, we would have still been enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.

The Pharaonic Egyptian dynasty has long been a relic of history. Between 1313 BCE and 2011 CE, some water came under the bridge. David killed Goliath; Plato wrote the Republic; Julius Caesar was stabbed on the steps of the Roman senate; Constantine embraced Christianity; Mohammad decided he was the last prophet; Shakespeare wrote Hamlet; George Washington declared independence; the Wright brothers flew an airplane; Sergery Brin built Google; Obama decided to embrace Iran. A few other things happened as well during the last 3329 years.

Yet, we sit down at the Seder and in complete seriousness state that if not for the Exodus we would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt? 

The Soul of Slavery

As much as we commemorate the physical suffering of our Jewish nation at the hand of their tyrannical Egyptian oppressors at the Seder, the true bondage the Jewish people were subjected to, was not only of a physical nature. To be sure, the physical suffering was tremendous. Jewish children were slaughtered. The Egyptian taskmasters would mercilessly beat down on their subjects who were tasked with impossible and useless jobs.

Yet, the slavery ran much deeper. The physical slavery was a byproduct of the human spirit lay dormant, concealed under the natural notion of man at the time that all of history is cyclical. Egypt was the superpower of the time, Pharaoh was the demigod; the concept of a human spark which dreams and aspires for a better tomorrow did not exist. People did not know that freedom is enshrined in the genome of their soul, that they are entitled to dream of a better future.

”No slave was able to escape from Egypt,” says the Midrash (Mechilta Exodus 18:11). It was not only that the slave was unsuccessful in staging a rebellion, rather, it was much more tragic: No slave possessed the ambition to break out of the shackles. The very walls that retained the slaves were also the walls that stunted the human soul. No man could even entertain the idea of rising up against injustice and exploitation. There existed no such concept as the great spirit of man, the greatness that soars aloft and pushes us to discover new horizons. The noble idea that the human person, carved in the image of a Free G-d, was destined to be free, lay dormant in the psyche of men. Despair and surrender filled the human core.

Symbol of Pyramids

Every country has a symbol which captures its soul. Egypt was represented by the Pyramids. They still remain the longstanding hallmark of Pharaonic Egypt—and are the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world to survive in modern times. In the pyramid there is only one stone that stands alone on top, while all the rest are just rows that serve the row on top of it. Each row of stones serves the row above it. All but the stone at the peak.

The image of pyramids graphically depicts the prevailing mentality in Egypt and the rest of civilization: Egyptians saw themselves as rows of stones subservient to the stones on top of them. Every person saw himself as a stone serving the one on top of him, while the higher stones were merely serving those on top of them. There was only one stone on top, the Pharaoh, who legally had no one above him. He was the god.

This view of life was a given. Wherever fate placed you in the hierarchy of the pyramid—that is where your eternal destiny lay. No person even dared to dream otherwise. The soul of humanity was all but dead.

Even nature conceded—the Egyptian Nile irrigated the land’s entire vegetation without any dependence on the annual precipitation. Nothing was dependent on human investment and creativity. Human labor would not make it or break it. All was fixed in its preordained role.

The Language of Freedom

Moses did not only free slaves; he introduced a new vocabulary: the vocabulary of freedom.

Moses breathed a new life into a shackled world. A new belief that spirit can dominate matter, that every person is intrinsically a free spirit with endless horizons, and can never be completely dominated. That each person is an end in and of himself; that his or her existence has infinite value.

Moses was the first man to ever stand up to the tyrant Pharaoh and make demands. It was not even what he said; it was that he said something. Demands of a Pharaoh on behalf of slaves? Unheard of. When Moses declared “Let my people go!” a new consciousness was introduced into humanity: that man can aspire to change, to transcend, to go beyond, to transform, to be free, physically, psychologically and spiritually.

If not for the Exodus from Egypt, the entire human history would have been different. It is not only that the Jews would have remained there for the time; rather, all of civilization would remain in a standstill, with no development and no progress. We would still be enslaved descendants of the ancient Egyptians because the concept of change would have been nonexistent. It had to be invented. Exodus was not only a national liberation; it was a cosmic event that shaped the future of the entire human race. It is not only a chapter in Jewish history but rather the very script of the free world. It is the redemption of the human spirit from the shackles of despair and hopelessness.

With the exodus of Israel out of Egypt the whole world woke up from a long winter that was deep and cold. Spring, at last, has arrived.

Awaking from slumber

This is why the Torah instructs us to observe Passover always in spring time. This is no easy task. Our months are lunar, so naturally Passover would fall out at various seasons of the year. We have to go great lengths in order to insure that Passover coincides with spring. Why was that so necessary?

The answer is because the season of spring embodies the essence of Passover. Passover will forever remain the spring of civilization. After a frigid winter of hibernation and deadness, the trees barren, and the leaves lifeless, the climate dreary and depressing, spring comes with a new song on its lips. Nature awakens from its slumber.

The Fuel behind Revolutions

The story of the Exodus, then, was not a single event occurring millennia ago. It is an ongoing story. Throughout the ages, millions of people, downtrodden and dejected, draw inspiration from the Exodus story to at least dream for a better tomorrow and to actively work for it. Exodus has planted in the human psyche the seed of liberty, the mentality of freedom, the vocabulary of emancipation. Wherever you observe a revolution or a voice yearning for change to the better, for justice and truth, for kindness and integrity, for an end to exploitation and abuse, you will see the imprint of the Exodus story in it.

Do you ever wake up in the morning and say to yourself, I will not be a victim anymore? My trauma will not define me any longer? Do you ever hear an inner voice: I will confront my darkness and utilize it to grow? That is the Exodus playing itself out again in your life. It is the voice of Exodus saying you are free.

Nowhere is this truth more evident than in the story of this country, the United States of America, From the Pilgrims to the Founding Fathers, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, Americans have turned to one biblical prophet, and his name was Moses, because his narrative offers a roadmap of promise in a world of peril.

Most of the pilgrims who settled the "New England" of America in early 17th century were Puritan refugees escaping religious persecutions in Europe. These Puritans viewed their emigration from England as a virtual re-enactment of the Exodus. To them, England was Egypt, the king was the Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean was the Red Sea, America was the Land of Israel, and the Indians were the ancient Canaanites. The Puritans were the new Israelites, entering into a new covenant with G-d in a new Promised Land.

The Pilgrims described their fight for freedom as being like that of Moses. George Washington attributed the success of the Revolution to the same deity who freed the Israelites. American slaves made "Go Down, Moses" their national anthem.

Immediately after passing the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress asked Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to propose a seal for the United States. Their recommendation (though it never materialized): Moses, leading the Israelites across the Red Sea, while the pharaoh drowns.

The pharaoh has long represented the intransigence of power. The Pilgrims called King James of England the pharaoh; Thomas Paine called King George the same; Civil Rights marchers branded Jim Crow the pharaoh.

At the time of the American Revolution, the interest in the knowledge of Hebrew was so widespread as to allow the circulation of the story that "certain members of Congress proposed that the use of English be formally prohibited in the United States, and Hebrew substituted for it."

And when the Pennsylvania Assembly ordered a bell of liberty in 1751, it chose an inscription from Leviticus: "Proclaim Liberty thro' all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof."

Lady Moses

Harriet Tubman (1822–1913), that remarkable lady, the African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the American Civil War, was famously nick named Moses. Why? Because during the horrific era of slavery in the US—triggering the Civil War --this woman liberated thousands of slaves.

One day, the then adolescent slave girl Tubman was sent to a dry-goods store for some supplies. There, she encountered a slave owned by a different family, who had left the fields without permission. His overseer, furious, demanded that Tubman help restrain the young man. She refused, and as the slave ran away. The overseer threw a two-pound weight at him, but struck Tubman instead, which she said "broke my skull." Bleeding and unconscious, Tubman was returned to her master's house and laid on the seat of a loom, where she remained without medical care for two days. She was sent back into the fields, "with blood and sweat rolling down my face until I couldn't see." Her master said she was "not worth a sixpence" and returned her to her original owner, who tried unsuccessfully to sell her.

Tubman took all her pain and turned it into one of the greatest human acts of courage, setting free slave after slave after slave.

For this she received the name “Moses!”

Where Would We Be?

Every time your heart moves you to transcend fear, to break a barrier, to go beyond the status quo, to battle injustice, to transform your life for the better, to subdue an addiction, to confront a bad habit or attribute, remember that it is all because the Lord has sent Moses to stand up to Pharaoh and take us out of Egypt. “If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we, our children and our children's children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

Every time you stand in front of a mirror and declare: I will not settle for mediocrity any longer, I will not be a victim any longer to instinct, to lies, to abuse—that has been triggered the moment Moses stood before the stone atop the pyramid, the Pharaoh, and declared: “Thus said the Lord! Let My people go and they will serve Me!”

Pesach gave us the vocabulary of freedom. Where would we and humanity be without it? What can your future look like with it?

Please leave your comment below!

  • SE

    Steven Ehrenhalt -7 years ago

    Interesting idea
    but the author might consider a bit more fact checking….

    Like: “Civil Rights marchers branded Jim Crow the pharaoh” – jim crow
    was a fictional black character (and a derogatory black character that was then
    used to refer to the overall system of laws) not a real person. and not similar to "King George"

    And he might want to know that it is
    the Wright brothers, not the “write” brothers.

    Small beer, yes – but reflective of

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • FM

    Fran Meyers -9 years ago

    Inspiring article -- but let's not ignore the expulsion and genocide of the Native Americans that can be compared with the expulsion and genocide of the Jews from Jerusalem and the land of Israel, rather than comparing the Native Americans to the Canaanites.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • M

    Mary_Linda -9 years ago

    Rabbi J, you assert "No person even dared to dream otherwise. The soul of humanity was all but dead."

    But did not Jacob and his sons roam free before they descended to Egypt? Did they not take the liberty offered by Jewish law to decimate the city of Schem? Does not the Midrash (Sefer HaYashar) tell of the heroics these boys engaged in their many battles? Many mighty, sovereign districts filled the broad Middle East panorama; Could not one one of these, back when might made right, one day, try to show sway against the Egyptians?

    Why, all of a sudden, during Egyptian habitation, that the Jews, as you say, "never dreamed" of their freedom? In fact, did not a huge contingent from one of the 12 tribes, I forget which now, break out of Egypt (only to meet their death after leaving Egypt at the hands of the Amalekites)?

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • M

    Michele -9 years ago

    Great article. Inspiring. Very proud to be an American Jew. I think Write is spelled Wright? Gut Shabbos.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • A

    avraham -9 years ago

    Great article
    I have a question about slavery
    the torah ,almost encourage to have slaves ( Begining all laws in P mishpatim) and in the talmud there are discusions at lenght about slaves????

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

    • L

      Levi -9 years ago

      Thats a great question.

      The Torah does not encourage us to have slaves, quite the contrary, the Torah frowns on us having slaves , because we are servants to G-d not to other humans.

      The laws in Mishpatim deal with Jews who own slaves.
      The truth is that the word "slaves" is incorrect and perhaps a better word would be "servants".

      These servants where people who had debt (either because of stealing or other reasons) that they needed to repay, so instead of rotting in prison, they were given the opportunity to pay off their debts.

      If we look at our treatment of these servants, it's very completely opposite of any master/slave in history.

      As the Torah says, if we have only one pillow, we need to give it to the slave... what?! why would you give your slave the only pillow that you have?

      Clearly it's not even close to the abomination of slavery that we're so used to hearing about...

      P.S. Moses is also called "G-ds servant"


      Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

      • A

        avraham -9 years ago

        ty for the answer about the Eved Ivri
        but according to Torah there is also an Eved Canaani that He and his children are kept for ever even inherent to the master's children
        He is a slave that can Never leave on his own
        where is the Freedom??

        Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • March 26, 2015
  • |
  • 6 Nisan 5775
  • |
  • Comment

In honor of Menucha Rochel bas Gilah Elka for a complete and speedy recovery.

Class Summary:

“If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we, our children and our children's children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” Really? We would still be slaves in Egypt? It seems far-fetched to declare that if G-d would have not taken us out of Egypt 3327 years ago, we would have still been enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.

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