“From Slavery to Freedom, From Degradation to Joy ”
By Rabbi Robin Podolsky, ‘13
“This day will be a remembrance for you and you will celebrate it as a celebration for HaShem; for your generations this will be an eternal law, that they will celebrate it. Seven days you will eat unleavened bread….” (Shemot 12:14, 15)
“And you will tell your child on that day, “This is because of what HaShem did for me with my going out from Mitzrayim.” (Shemot 13:8)
With these and other words, this week’s parashah introduces us to Pesach, one of our three major festivals. Pesach is our freedom holiday, our celebration of the Hebrews’ redemption by the hand of God.
Here is a high point in the narrative of the Jewish people, the day in which we went from freedom to slavery, from degradation to joy. This is the narrative trajectory that, the Rabbis tell us, must guide our re-telling of the story during our yearly Seder (Mishnah Pesachim 10:5). We read in our parashah that God mandates this holiday even before the redemption is accomplished.
The story that we re-tell on Pesach is central to our self-understanding as a people. In the book of Devarim, the final book of our Tanakh, our slavery in Mitzrayim is given as an additional reason for the commandment to rest on Shabbat. (We are told earlier, in Shemot, that, as God rested on the seventh day after creating the world, we also rest in honor of that creation.) In Devarim, we are told that every person of every class and gender within a Jewish household—and even every animal—must rest on Shabbat and that we are to remember that we were slaves in Mitzrayim until God brought us out.
This commandment is not meant to be put off for the world to come, that promised time of peace and plenty for all persons. This commandment was enunciated for the world in which our ancestors lived. This was a world in which some were enslaved and some were free and there was no question of equal status between men and women. Nevertheless, those without social power were not entirely at the mercy of the fortunate or the strong. The essential humanity of each person, their status as an instantiation of God’s image, was protected, not only by principle, but by a founding narrative that encourages each Jew to identify with the slave.
Our common understanding of what this means has heightened over the centuries. It can be distressing to realize that, while our Rabbis sought to reform and contain the institution of slavery, they did not do away with it.
Talmud Bavli Pesachim 116 records a disturbing story: “In the midst of a Seder, Rav Nahman once asked his slave Daru: ‘When a master liberates his slave and gives him gold and silver, what should he say to him?’ Daru replied, ‘He [the slave] should thank and praise him [the master].’ Rav Nahman said, ‘You have excused us from Mah Nishtanah (Why is this night different…?)” Then he (Rav Nahman) began reciting, ‘We were slaves…’” It was not necessary to ask the questions because the purpose of the celebration was now very clear.
Rav Nahman has turned to the one man in the room whose experience most closely parallels that of the ancient Hebrews, and whose opinion—that liberation from slavery merits thanks and praise—nicely encapsulates the lesson of the ritual questions. Nahman moves on to the heart of the matter: this night is different from all others, because we were slaves when the night began, and by the next night, we were free. The disturbing part is that, for Daru, this inspiring tale only serves to underline his station.
Did the Stammaim, the anonymous redactors of the Talmud include this story as a provocation, an ironic, jarring interlude meant to incite discussion? Or were they simply employing an illustrative anecdote in service of a point of law? However it was selected, this bit of aggadah offers the contemporary reader a point of entry into an unfinished conversation.
Today, we can hope that most of us would respond with revulsion at the idea of one human being holding title to the person of another. The African-American Jewish writer Julius Lester writes, “To be a slave. To be owned by another person, as a car; house or table is owned. To live as a piece of property that could be sold…a “thing” whose sole function was determined by the one who owned you…To know, despite the suffering and deprivation, that you were human…to know joy, laughter, sorrow and tears and yet be considered only the equal of a table…They were people. Their condition was slavery.” Lester’s ancestors lived in that condition much later than did the ancestors of most American Jews. The effects of that enslavement continue to reverberate in our world. His is a Jewish story.
We have yet to realize the world to come, and there are people all over the world who are trafficked or who remain enslaved to poverty and powerlessness. In the spirit of Pesach, Jews continue to remind ourselves of our journey from slavery to freedom and the consideration for others that our narrative demands. When we find out about workers in the United States who are bullied into working 60 hour weeks for much less than minimum wage; women lured into sexual slavery with promises of good jobs or children who are working to support their families when they should be in school, many of us feel obliged to act. Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman of American Jewish World Service writes, “May we, the living and the free, descendants of slaves and slave owners, accept our responsibility to actively support the elimination of slavery and to support its survivors toward sustainable freedom.”