Many of us have had the opportunity in the last few weeks to see the wonderful, historically-based film “Lincoln.” In this film, director Steven Spielberg presents a riveting picture of the ins and outs of how President Lincoln cajoled, maneuvered, and manipulated the legislative process to ensure passage of the 13th Amendment. This watershed amendment abolished slavery in our country once and for all, enshrining the slavery ban as a formal part of our legal heritage and not just a wartime executive order as had been expressed in the Emancipation Proclamation.
Unfortunately, as we know from subsequent American history and as alluded to in the movie, the abolition of slavery did not bring an end to racism and did not usher in an era of totally equality, enfranchisement, and full acceptance of African-Americans as equal citizens in all aspects of life with all rights and responsibilities.
Too many people in society focused only on the aspect of “freedom from” slavery – to use the terminology of Erich Fromm and Isaiah Berlin – without allowing former slaves and their families to truly experience the true freedom which is “freedom to,” that is, the freedom to shape their destiny and assume all the rights and responsibilities of human agency.
The African-American struggle in this country was, as is evidenced from a cursory study of the inspired sermons and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., profoundly influenced by the Exodus narrative of the Torah. The theme of the oppressed nation yearning for freedom and being released from bondage resonated deeply in the ranks of slaves and abolitionists alike. And ultimately, as time went on, people slowly (too slowly) came to understand that the passage of the 13th Amendment was just the first step to true freedom.
This very message is embedded in the Torah portions that we have been reading the last few weeks. They emphasize precisely the point that freedom involves not just “freedom from” but “freedom to.” When Moses appeared before Pharoh in his very first visit he did not simply demand “Let My people go” but rather: “So says the Lord: Let My people go that they shall may worship Me.” God breaks through the distance of transcendence to redeem His people so that they will be able to consecrate themselves to His service and create an ideal society animated by striving for holiness and ethical monotheism.
In this week’s parasha, Parshat Bo, the people receive their first set of commandments as a people, as a collective. According to the plain sense of the text, the first mitzvah the Jewish people receive is that of the Paschal sacrifice. Even prior to the actual Exodus, prior to the liberation from bondage and leaving Egypt, Am Yisrael is to experience a national experience of service to God. Indeed the term “Avodah” service is used for the first time in our parasha in relation to the world of Torah and mitzvot. Even while readying themselves for physical freedom, the Torah sets up a paradigm where the people are already involved in the next steps, the step of “freedom to,” of freedom to actualize the great spiritual potential that God has given to the Jew to connect to His maker and each other through sacred moments. As a number of modern writers have noted, the Paschal sacrifice, the Korban Pesah, involves turning one’s very house, one’s home, into a mizbei-ach, an altar, with the ritual of the sprinkling of the blood taking place on the very doorpost of the home and the roasting of the meat and its consumption taking place in its four walls. Each and every family on that night of glory, that night of Exodus so many centuries ago, affirmed that they were ready for more than physical freedom from bondage. They were ready to enter into a covenantal relationship with God. They would be free-willed beings who would embrace the opportunities, the rights and the responsibilities that God would share with them as they would make the trek from Egypt to Sinai.
As we read through these parshiyot and think about our own lives, we too need to consider our own journey, our own spiritual Exodus. The chasidic masters often noted that the Hebrew word Mitzrayim, Egypt, is associated with the Hebrew words meitzar, in the narrows. Each of us is often boxed in and trapped in our own personal Egypt of material and existential pressures, of conformity, of expectations, and of anxieties and slavish servitude to external pushes that shape and limn the contours of our religious lives. We, too, often yearn and should yearn for the freedom from peer pressure and from the rat race and from a corroding materialism. But in that pursuit we need to keep our eyes on the prize. We are not simply running away from something, but rather we need to embrace a freedom that contains in it ethical responsibility. We hope and pray for a freedom that leaves us with a heightened awareness of God in our lives through mitzvot and reflective thought, of shared love and concern for others, of living full Jewish lives that give us purpose and meaning as we go about the small and grand moments of our lives.