By Rabbi Daniel Levitt
This week’s Torah portion, Bo, marks the beginning of the Jewish people’s freedom from slavery in Egypt.
It begins where last week’s portion left off, with the last three of the 10 plagues, then continues with Pharaoh allowing the people to go free and of their preparations to leave. In addition, the Jewish concept of freedom begins to emerge in this week’s portion.
Why did God free the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt? Many of us would answer: God freed the Jews so that they could be a nation. But they were already a distinct separate group; what was added by making them a nation?
I will argue that the opportunity of self-determination, which independent nations enjoy, teaches us about the nature of freedom and challenges us as individuals living in a free society to be actively engaged in living a life inspired by our concepts of Jewish values and our personal Jewish identities.
There is a line that you might recognize from the Passover Haggadah, “because God did this for me when I went out of Egypt.” This is an ambiguous verse because it doesn’t clearly indicate what it is that “God did for me.”
There have been many different approaches by commentators to resolve this ambiguity.
Rashi argues that the verse is referring to the previous verses that talk about God’s commanding the Jews to have a seder each year with matzah and maror to commemorate the Exodus. Nachmanides explains that the verse should really be explained backwards and read as “I observe commandments, because God did this (meaning freed me from slavery in Egypt) for me.”
I would like to offer another alternative to solve this ambiguity by connecting this verse to the following verses, which describe the commandment of putting on tefillin.
Tefillin are put on the head and on the arm. The symbolism of the placement of tefillin is synthesis of these two seemingly opposing perspectives on the world. Some engage with the world intellectually, and are more concerned with ideas than action, while others are more focused on the world of doing things with their hands, leaving a mark, but rarely are those actions bound to their deep-rooted beliefs and ideas.
The mission of Jews as a light among the nations is to be an example of a culture which is defined by what we do, as well as being intrinsically connected to, and motivated by, our beliefs.
When the verse talking about tefillin as a sign on your head and on your arm concludes with “so that the Torah of God will be in your mouth,” it is to teach us that this moral vison which is an intrinsic part of our national culture and identity, isn’t just a lofty ideal or only obligatory on the elite. It’s something that should be familiar to every one of us because it is “in our mouths,” as something familiar to us and easily spoken about.
For this goal to be accomplished, the Jewish people needed to be freed from slavery so that they can serve only one master. God doesn’t free the Jewish people for the sake of freedom alone; tradition teaches us that God frees the Jewish people so that they can be slaves to God.
The Torah refers to Moses after his death, arguably the greatest Jew to ever live, as “Moses, the slave of God.” Freedom from slavery only takes us so far; it doesn’t define what we are then free to accomplish.
This week’s Torah portion is teaching us the lesson that our freedom needs to be a freedom to accomplish a spiritual or cultural life that defines who we are and motivates our beliefs and actions on a daily basis.
Some questions this should motivate in all of us are: To what degree can we say that Jewish wisdom, Jewish values and Jewish culture are really motivating each one of us in our actions and decisions on a daily basis? Do we use our freedom to be Jewish in the way that we can choose to be more Jewish or does our freedom simply allow us to be like everyone else?
May we all be blessed to make the most of our freedom and to live deep, fulfilling, and inspirational Jewish lives.
Rabbi Daniel Levitt is the executive director of Hillel at Temple University: The Edward H. Rosen Center for Jewish Life. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.