Pesach Day 1 (Shabbat)
Ex. 12:21 – 12:51; Num. 28:16-25
Rabbi Baht Weiss
A week before Passover I engaged in one of my favorite activities, putting on a gray wig and beard, grabbing a wooden staff (stick) and walking down to our preschool classrooms to perform my role of Moses. It is always a great deal of fun surprising the children with my costume and then playfully arguing with their teachers who are pretending to be Pharaoh, demanding that they “Let my People Go!”. This year I even got to argue with a three-year-old dressed as Pharaoh for my freedom. Three-year-olds can be tough!
Having just had this experience I was caught by an article in my inbox with the title “The Oft-Misquoted Catchphrase of the Exodus” written by my colleague and classmate Rabbi Sari Laufer. Rabbi Laufer points out that “Let My People go” has become the catchphrase of the Exodus story for a long time and yet, Moses never actually says, “Let my people Go,” because that’s not what God asks him to say. She explains the phrase, “Let my People Go” is only part of the equation. Instead in Exodus 7:16 God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh, “The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, ‘Let my people go THAT THEY MAY WORSHIP ME in the wilderness.”
Why is that difference important? For a couple of reasons—firstly, it gives God the credit for freeing the Jewish people, not just Moses. But secondly, and just as importantly, it helps us temper the idea of having freedom. We are free from slavery, but we are not free from responsibility or moral obligation.
While this concept is difficult for a preschooler to grasp, as adults, it is worth pointing out the difference. We are free from slavery but still not free to do whatever we want—there are still boundaries surrounding this sense of independence. As Jews, many of us so focused on Passover that we can easily forget that there is another, equally important Jewish holiday just 49 days later—Shavuot, in which we receive the Ten Commandments and the Torah. Our historical narrative of the Jewish people doesn’t just end with freedom from oppression in Egypt but rather, it continues with our freedom to worship God. As Rabbi Laufer explains “The Jewish concept of freedom is not a wild one. It is not an unbounded, do-whatever-you-want kind of place.. Rather the Exodus defines for us a different sort of freedom.”
Later in Exodus 32:16 our text tells us
וְהַלֻּחֹת מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹהִים הֵֵמָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּב מִכְתַּב אֱלֹהִים הוּא חָרוּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹֽת
The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, engraved upon the tablets.
The rabbis suggest (Pirkev Avot 6:2) that instead of reading the word charut “engraved” we read it as cheirut “freedom.” God’s freedom, they say, is engraved on the tablet. And what is God’s freedom? That no one is truly free without the study of the Torah.
Passover reminds us to have gratitude that we were given the freedom to choose how to live our lives—but what we do with that power matters. Do we use our privileges to ensure that all individuals have basic liberties? We can easily see the relevancy of that call to action this Passover as we see Ukrainians fleeing to refuge after attack on their cities. As a people who were oppressed and with the rise of anti-Semitism, we still witness the evils of systemic racism, the marginalization of people with disabilities, the oppression of those facing domestic abuse and the economic and social inequalities within society. As our prayer book says, “that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt, that there is a better place, a promised land…..and that there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg says, “Freedom means freely choosing commitment and obligations to bring out the individual’s humanity. What are those obligations that each of us can make to bring out our humanity and give our lives meaning?
This Pesach, let us not just express our gratitude for being freed from slavery but also vow to create a world in which we seek freedom for all individuals. It is not just that we asked “Let our people go” but even more so, Let our people go and Serve God through acts of holiness.