Commanding Slaves To Be Free
Shabbat Va’eira

Commanding Slaves To Be Free

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Open Torah Scroll
Open Torah Scroll

‘The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, and gave them a command to the Children of Israel and to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to let the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt” [Exodus 6:13].

This is one of the most difficult texts to understand in all of the Torah. Is it not strange for God to command Moses to command the Israelites to leave Egypt?

There are two major responses to this question. The first is provided by the Midrash and cited by Rashi: That God is telling Moses and Aaron that the Israelites are given to refusing and complaining. You will only succeed in leading them if you accept that they will curse you and pelt you with stones. God is telling them that they must learn to be patient with the Hebrews.

If this is the intent of the command, it is certainly prophetic. Moses enjoyed little satisfaction and even less honor from his position of leadership. When Korach arrogantly challenged Moses, not one Israelite stood up in his defense. Dathan and Aviram remained hell-bent on returning to Egypt even after the Exodus. They become the ringleaders of a significant number of like-minded Hebrews in the desert after the hapless report of the scouts, brazenly refusing to discuss the matter with the greatest prophet who ever lived [Numbers 16:1-12].

Shabbat Shalom
Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 4:32 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 6:2- 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
Havdalah: 5:35 p.m.

Accepting this interpretation would necessitate taking the verse in Exodus to mean that God commanded them “about” rather than “to the children of Israel,” which is a leap since the conjunction in question is “el” (to) rather than “al” (about).

There is a second interpretation that suggests Moses was commanded to tell the Israelites to free their own slaves [Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh HaShanah 3, 5]. The Israelites could not expect Pharaoh to free them if the Israelites were keeping slaves themselves. This fascinating idea, which emanates from Jeremiah [34:12-17], posits that there were some Israelites who were close enough to Pharaoh to have been allowed to maintain slaves even during the Egyptian enslavement.

I would prefer to return to the simplest meaning of the verse: that God commanded Moses and Aaron to command the Children of Israel and Pharaoh that the Israelites must leave Egypt.

In order to understand how such a command could apply to the Israelite slaves, I refer to Erich Fromm’s “Escape from Freedom.” This book maintains that the majority of the world has consistently rejected freedom and the responsibilities that come with it — the difficult and even fateful choices that a free person must often make. It is far easier for people to subject themselves to a totalitarian political or religious regime that will make all the choices for them — economic, social and even existential.

Many people desire to flee the challenges of freedom and responsibility, even though the alternative may be subjugation. This is not what our God wants for humanity. Hence Va’eira opens with a new name for God: not El Shaddai (the Almighty and All-Powerful God who created and sets limits upon nature and people), but rather Y-H-V-H, the God of redemption and love who leaves room for, and thereby empowers, us to be His partners in redeeming and perfecting the imperfect world.

God will effectuate the redemption, but the people must want to be redeemed. Moses and Aaron must lead them as full partners with God and they will be expected to take risks for freedom by sacrificing an Egyptian pagan god (the lamb). They will be expected to put their lives on the line by fighting for their homeland, the Land of Israel, and settling it.

The God of Redemption must even wean Moses from his desire that God dominate everything and direct the historical process without human input. The shortness of spirit (kotzer ruach) and hard labor of the Israelites under Pharaoh make it difficult for them to even imagine the possibility of freedom and human potential.

It will be a long process, one that will not be completed even by the end of the biblical story. But God is preparing the way by instructing Moses to command the Israelites to want to be free, to cooperate as partners with God in their march to redemption.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.


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