Passover: A Tale of Freedom from Slavery

Goodbye and thanks for all the whips!

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר | יִֽהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֨רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַֽעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה

-And He [The Lord] said to Abram, “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years.

This week Jews around the world will be celebrating Passover, or the Exodus from Egyptian slavery to Mount Sinai and then on to the Holy Land. I would like us to pay attention to the theme of slavery and freedom.

The quote I have given above comes from Genesis, from the parsha of Lech Lecha. In that parsha, the Lord appears to Abram and tells him of his and his progeny’s future. In contrast to the many blessings, such as his descendants should be as numerous as the stars, he tells an ominous prediction in what sounds like a curse: his progeny will be enslaved for 400 years in a foreign land. Well, what just happened? How did Abram’s righteousness go from rewarding him with an infinitely prosperous posterity to enslaving those very same descendents. And this prophecy, being directly from God’s lips, came true as He had intended with the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt.

To understand this dilemma, we need to understand the nature of freedom, slavery and genuine achievement. It is only too true that freedom itself can only be truly appreciated if one has been deprived of freedom. That is slavery is a necessary prerequisite to experiencing the joys of freedom. This needn’t be literal slavery, but its metaphysical counterpart being enslaved to our passions and desires. Only by overcoming our materiality and our lower pleasures can we truly experience the higher pleasures.

But more than that, there is individual responsibility and true metaphysical achievement in doing so. God is always testing our willpower, our ability to overcome obstacles through our own strength. He does this to improve us, and bring us closer to him. A person who can overcome their challenges does so on their own merit, even detached from God in some cases.

So back to the promise of slavery. What looks like a curse is actually a blessing from another perspective. To experience slavery as deeply as the Jews did, and as harshly has left an indelible reminder on the Jewish psyche to seek justice, to remember the stranger among us (because we were strangers), to seek to liberate others as we liberate ourselves. A slavery so harsh that we still sing about it thousands of years later. And it is not for nothing that Jews of all stripes and affiliations have been on the forefront of freedom movements around the world, from apartheid South Africa to civil rights within the US (and more controversially the Russian Revolution).

So God was blessing Abram, blessing his children with a great tragedy which would mould them into a strong nation in the long run.

Writer, poet, philosopher