Freedom to serve
Parashah Bo is the penultimate portion in the narrative known in the tradition as “Yetziat Mitzraim”, or the Exodus from Egypt. At the heart of the story of the Exodus is not just our freedom from oppression but our freedom to serve God. In the opening of this week’s parashah we hear again how Moses challenged Pharaoh in last week’s parashah Vaera: “Thus says YHVH, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let my people go that they may serve Me.” Most of us know the refrain “let my people go”, far fewer recall that it is in order to serve. These days, freedom has become far more a hollow slogan about how to arrogate individual power without communal responsibility, than the teaching of Judaism that freedom gives us the privilege to serve in life.
Unfortunately, a growing number of Jews no longer even believe in God to serve. How can we be servants of God, how can we recite Shema Israel, if we do not believe? Yet how can we believe in God given our knowledge of history and science that contradicts aspects of the stories in the Torah, including the Exodus; moreover, how can we believe in God given some of the Torah’s unethical teachings, such as commanded genocide? We must come back to the essence of our teaching of God, understanding that the name for God, YHVH, is a form of the verb “to be” in Hebrew. Our ancestors are teaching that that which “is” and all that “is” is that which we call God. Think of God as a synonym for the “life force”, “conscious being”, or even “ultimate mystery of existence”. Understand that whatever it is, it is one, and thus all that is, including you and me and the universe itself, is part of the one as it is part of us. In other words, serving God is serving life itself.
While Torah is the foundational document in guiding us toward the service of God, it is the beginning of our ancestral wisdom and call to service, not the end. Our ancestors wrote the Torah and it contains our first memories of who we are as a people and our first principles of faith: there is only one existence, including all time and space and beyond, in which we are all interconnected. Consequentially, we choose to act with love toward creation, with all our heart, all our soul, all our might. This responsibility for the other – the environment, other animals, and all humanity – is at the core of service to God and needs to evolve as we humans and our understanding of service evolves.
Human hubris must give way to humility. Today’s Pharaohs are not kings of Egypt but self-appointed kings of “freedom” as a way of manipulation of others, of gaining power over; it is the opposite of that freedom to serve, to give, to empower at the core of Judaism. “Thus says YHVH, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let my people go that they may serve Me.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins