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did egypt leave us?

01/28/2021 03:59:38 PM


Rabbi Jeffrey Myers

In this week’s Torah portion, B’shalach, the Exodus occurs followed by the crossing of the sea. In ensuing portions, we witness the initial challenges that Moses faces as a leader, as this brand new nation of people, having lived under slavery for over 350 years, do not yet know what it means to be free. They complain that life was better back in Egypt, as they had food, lodging and ample fresh water. Somehow the sting of the whip of the cruel taskmasters had quickly been forgotten. Despite the glorious revelation at Mt. Sinai, they continued to express mistrust and disbelief, highlighted by the report of ten of the twelve spies sent to reconnoiter the Promised Land who state that they will be unable to live there, in contradistinction to the promise God made initially to Abraham and Sarah, renewed with Moses and the Israelites. This led to the wanderings in the wilderness for forty years, until that generation that lacked trust and faith, died off, with their descendants, who were not born in Egypt and thus never knew slavery, able to inherit the land promised to their ancestors.

The Israelites may have been freed from slavery, but was slavery freed from them. If all you knew was slavery, and then you are suddenly freed, how might you react? The Israelites lacked the skill sets necessary to live as a free people, despite God’s continued Presence to guide and encourage them. They were physically free, but mentally and spiritually, they were still back in Egypt. They left Egypt, but Egypt had not left them.

Are we truly free people? We have frequently heard the phrase “a slave to_____”, and when I did a quick search, there were far more words than expected: righteousness (Romans 6:18); fashion; the clock; the job; money. There are many more, but you get the drift. We are not necessarily as free as we think we are. Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher who lived during the years 50-135. He wrote the following: “No man is free who is not master of himself.” He knew what he was talking about since he was born a slave. The Rabbis of the Talmud understood this as well, for they ask the following question in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): Who is mighty? The one who controls his inclinations.

Despite general recognition of how abhorrent human slavery is, it continues unabated throughout the world, with humans still abducted and sold into slavery, street walkers who are slaves to their pimps, people who seek freedom and pay enormous sums to supposed helpers who ship them to freedom only to learn that they are not free but still have to work off the payment as slaves, and people, particularly children, who labor in factories and farms that are not paid a living wage.

While we might think that there are things that enslave us, in the end, it is up to us, as we do have freedom of choice with regards to those things. While there are things that we cannot control, options such as how we live our lives, how we treat other people, and how we treat ourselves are choices that we are free to make. When we yield to those things that enslave us, then we are truly slaves. When we can take control, then we have truly experienced the Exodus from Egypt and can say that we are free.

Sun, February 28 2021 16 Adar 5781