Slavery and freedom are two main subjects in the book of Exodus, both bound to our relationship with the Creator. Although our Sages refer to the usual translation as slavery, they point out that the Hebrew term suggests servitude or service depending on the context in which is mentioned. Hence we can serve God either as His servants or His slaves, and most of our Sages prefer the idea of service when there is a common agreement between the one who serves and the one who is served.
In service one seems to have a relative degree of independence, and his/her work is the result of his/her choice based on a mutually convenient accord. In contrast, slavery implies forced service or labor against the will of who provides his work. We know the difference and we must raise the distinction in order to approach this decisive period of our Jewish history.
Slavery or servitude is mentioned as a curse when Noah declared that Ham will serve his brothers Shem and Japheth. Also as a prophecy revealed to Rebecca regarding her sons, stating that the older will serve the younger. Regarding Ham, our Sages say that his attachment to negative emotions, lower passions and uncontrolled instincts made him enslaved to these. This predicament also made him subservient to those more capable to master the lower aspects of consciousness.
Our oral tradition tells that Ham, the raven and the dog were the only ones who transgressed God’s order to abstain from sexual intercourse inside Noah’s ark during the Flood. Esau shared similar traits that destined him to serve the higher consciousness represented by Jacob. These precedents of slavery or servitude are clear references to examine our ancestors’ bondage as servitude in Egypt.
We learn from these Biblical accounts that identity defines in lesser or greater proportion how we exercise free will in terms of what and who we serve, or for what and for whom we dedicate our life. In this sense we understand that the saga of the Exodus starts with the names (shemot) of the children of Israel as their identities. These names are mentioned to teach us that our awareness of who we are and from where we come determines for Whom and for what we live in this world, either be in exile or in our Promised Land.
The first portion of Shemot reveals two aspects of slavery: the more we are assimilated into a reality contrary to our true Essence and identity, the more we enslave our consciousness to values, patterns and lifestyles that deny our real purpose in this world. Ironically, as we have said many times, in the darkness of exile’s alien reality –equalized to ego’s materialistic fantasies and illusions– is where we force ourselves to search for freedom.
Our Sages say that Egypt is the prototype of all Jewish exiles, and that is why we pray three times a day to be redeemed from there. Even though it happened many centuries ago, we still cry out to God’s Love to deliver us from servitude under the illusions of the material world, derived from the egocentric consciousness represented by Pharaoh. Not many among seven billion people can boast about making a living according to what we like or desire in terms of work or means for survival.
The ideal “best work is the best play” is a remote childhood memory when mowing the grass, painting the fence, and shinning dad’s shoes were the most enjoyable works to play because we loved to do them. Love is what reminds us of our true identity, and the reason why life and God’s Creation exist. We find no meaning in anything we do or may have if Love is not their cause and effect.
Moses and Aaron stood before Pharaoh asking him for permission to let the Israelites go to the desert for a festival honoring their God. He denied the petition arguing that he didn’t know God, because Pharaoh — as the epitome of ego — believed that he was his own god. Our Sages analyze the Hebrew word for festival, saying that its semantic root means to encircle or to gather around in a circle, in which the Creator is in the center.
This invites us to discern again on the circle and the pyramid as opposite models, about how we relate to each other as individuals, and in society as a whole. The circle rejects categories, levels, casts, upper or lower, because we are all equal in the eyes of God. There we are commanded to follow His ways and emulate His attributes as the common denominator of our Jewish identity. This is one of the primordial principles of Judaism, and the Torah presents the children of Israel as the family whose circle is the Light for the nations, and these to emulate the Jewish model. The circle is the result of Love’s ways and attributes as the material reflections of God’s Love, and we understand His Love by following His Commandments.
We have names that identify who we are as the children of Israel wherever we may be As long as we maintain this awareness we know by Whom do we live and for Whom do we live and serve. This is an essential part of Joseph’s legacy to us, because he not only affirmed that he was a Hebrew but acted as one while he was a servant and a ruler. By reaffirming his true identity he was able to rule in his surroundings either as a slave or as a viceroy. The awareness of our true identity secures our autonomy, and this inner freedom leads us to Redemption. All we are and do with Love as our Essence and identity are the true service that we are destined to realize.
God’s Love redeemed our forefathers from their slavery under the lowest levels of life, to make them serve Him up on the highest levels of consciousness where real freedom dwells. From there we serve only with our Love, for the sake of Love as freedom. In this awareness there’s no submission to negative thoughts, emotions, feelings, passions and instincts, because Love is our freedom and redemption as material manifestations of God’s Love:
“They will make war against you but will be unable to defeat you, because I am with you, says the Lord to deliver you.” (Jeremiah 1:19) and “Days are coming when Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill the face of the Earth like fruit.” (Isaiah 27:6)