“And he [Noah] said, ‘Cursed be Canaan, a slave of slaves he will be to his brothers [Shem and Japheth]’.” (Genesis 9:25)
Based on the curse that Noah placed on his son Ham [Canaan], our Sages reflect on forced servitude and slavery as a choice and consequence, and not as a condition. At a first look, ironically, Ham’s descendants were slaving nations, Egypt one of them. How come they were not destined to be slaves, as Noah’s curse states?
The answer is more related to being slaves themselves to the lowest traits and trends in human consciousness, which direct them to enslave others to such depraved condition; rather than being forced to slavery by his brothers or by other nations.
We can understand that our true freedom lives in the goodness we have and manifest, as the result of living it as the ethical ruling principle in God’s creation. In contrast, living under an egotistic approach to life is the slavery to attachments, obsessions and addictions that destroy the goodness by which God commands us to live, and to make it prevail.
Israel’s slavery in Egypt was determined by the Creator as a painful experience, not inflicted by depravity but by ruthless oppression. Our oral tradition explains it as a punishment to Abraham for doubting God’s power to sustain him and his family during a period of severe drought in the land of Canaan; and his decision to “go down” to Egypt in order to survive the famine in the region.
Others claim that God’s decree was a precondition for the children of Israel’s final freedom with the Exodus from Egypt. This precondition as a necessary negative refining experience in order to appreciate the transcendental value of the kind of freedom offered by God’s giving them the Torah. Hence Egypt was called by our Sages “the iron crucible”.
The slavery of the children of Israel in Egypt is quite different from the slavery by which Noah cursed Ham. In this distinction we approach Ham’s descendants, including Mizraim (Egypt) and the seven nations that dwelt in the land of Canaan.
Our oral tradition says that Egypt was the most depraved nation in Biblical times, and that Pharaoh represents the egocentric mentality. This makes us associate the latter (egotism), with the former (depravity). Egotism attracts lower thoughts, emotions, feelings, passions and instincts.
Ego’s materialistic fantasies and illusions easily become attachments, obsessions and addictions that enslave human consciousness. The more one is attached, obsessed and addicted to negative traits and tendencies, the more difficult is to escape from them. The “nations” of Canaan represent the oppressors and enemies of the positive traits and qualities that characterize goodness as the cause, source and purpose of true freedom.
The ethical principles inherent in goodness are delineated in the Torah for the Jewish people, with their mission to spread them among the nations. This is the essence of God’s commandment to Israel to be “a light for the nations”.
We understand “light” as the best symbol of goodness, not as a choice for our free will to function, but as the reason and purpose of life. Likewise, evil too mustn’t be considered a choice but a reference to embrace goodness as our essence and true identity, by which we are able to live every day.
In the haftarah for this week’s Torah portion, the Prophet calls in Jerusalem to expand its goodness to transform the negative traits (“the nations” and “the desolated cities”) into positive qualities to dwell in. Jerusalem, the utmost awareness of God’s goodness, will be the anchor of the new consciousness He promised for Israel in His final redemption. May it come soon in our days.
“Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of your habitations. Spare not, lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you shall spread abroad on the right hand and on the left; and your seed shall possess the nations, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited.” (Isaiah 54:2-3)