A gardener who was working nearby a kindergarten playground suddenly got stuck in a ditch of his own making. Laboring furiously to extricate himself, he finally succeeded and exclaimed – "I'm free; I'm free!"
"Big deal," said a child passing by, "I'm 4!"
For a child to confuse "three" for "free" is an understandable mistake.
But for an adult reading this week's portion in Exodus, to assume that the call for freedom is contained in three Hebrew words, rather than four, is naive in a more serious and less tolerable way.
Shelah et ami ("Release my people"), the clarion call linked to the saga of Exodus does not sufficiently express the exposition of freedom. We forget about the fourth Hebrew word in the phrase: Veya'avduni ("So that they may serve Me").
And what does that add?
Movement, Plus Meaning
Everything that helps us as adults appreciate the difference between freedom and anarchy; the difference between liberty and license; the difference between service and servitude; the difference between devotion and dissolution.
The fourth word adds everything that we never learned in kindergarten, and makes all the difference between children and adults. The difference that the fourth word adds to our "yearning to be free" is nothing less than direction and dedication, purpose and principle to our lives.
Adding that word – veya'avduni – and all that it implies, now means that freedom is not just about shaking off the shackles of oppression, but also taking on some ties that bind.
Such ties bind us closer to the Divine – ties that are employed in the service of Hashem and His people; ties that express something spiritual and quite substantial. Because for us to become truly liberated, we want not just more movement, but more meaning.
To quote another Jewish person, Bob Dylan, whose messages were, for many in my generation, more heeded than Moses: "Ya gotta serve somebody."
Who, what and how we serve is for us – and the mature generations that follow us – to decide. That certainly is "a big deal."
"Free at last, free at last!" to quote from another liberator, whose birthday we recently observed. Free at last? Yes, for most of us. Thank God Almighty! But let me add this point. Let's begin to say that added phrase "Thank God Almighty" now, not just as a reaction in gratitude for our freedom.
Let's add it as a commitment and a responsibility, a task and an undertaking. See it as a purpose that inspires all of our work with worth, and a conviction that infuses all of our labors with love.
Bernard Baruch, a financial advisor to seven presidents of the United States, expressed a similar sentiment in his autobiography. Before the age of 30, he had attained financial freedom, accumulating assets more than $1 million (this at a time when $1 million was still worth $1 million).
Elated, he went to tell his father about it.
The man, however, was not impressed. Bernard was hurt, and thought his father didn't care. "I'm not even 30 years old, and already, I've made my first million. How can you not care? Are you not happy? I now have financial freedom."
"I do care my son," replied the elder Baruch.
"But I am not yet impressed. Tell me first: How will you spend it? Toward what purpose are you putting it to use? Who and what will it serve?"
These are just a few meaningful questions to consider when discussing the deeper meaning of this week's portion.
Rabbi Ira Samuel Grussgott is the rabbi of Congregation Kesher Israel in Center City.