6 Shevat 5780

January 31, 2020

This Shabbat, my family and I will celebrate with my nephew at his Bar Mitzvah ceremony as he reads from this week’s Torah portion, Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16). The opening word of the portion, Bo, which literally means “come.” “Bo el Paroh – come to Pharaoh;” yet most translations say, “Go to Pharaoh,” because that’s really what it means. Now we could get into a long discussion about why the Torah uses the word Bo, “come”, when it really intends that Moses is to go, and one of the answers is that God is telling Moses to go to Pharaoh, that Pharaoh too is created in God’s image. That God is sending Moses and even, somehow, with Pharaoh. But I want to get back to the difficulty of translation.

Let me give you another example of tricky translation. In this week’s Torah portion, as well as the last two, we find a familiar phrase that sometimes gets translated as, “Let my people go.” We teach that to our children; we sing: “Go down Moses, Way down in Egypt Land, Tell Old Pharaoh to let my people go.” If we look at the original Hebrew text, we find that the Hebrew phrase is “Shalah ami v’ya’avduni.” It literally means, “Send my people and they shall serve me.” Or, to smooth it out a little bit: Send my people so that they may serve me. While “Let my people go” is not an awful translation, it is not a complete translation.

The idea is to send forth the Hebrew slaves. And there is a second phrase that is often ignored, V’ya’avduni – that they may serve me, that they may be slaves to me – it is the same root – they were avadim – slaves to Pharaoh and now, v’ya’avduni – they will serve, be slaves to God.

That is the key to the entire Exodus. It is not simply being freed, “Let my people go.” While that is important, and it is just and right that no people ever be enslaved, it is not the complete story. If they simply had freedom, that would be freedom without purpose.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik teaches, there is freedom from and there is freedom to – freedom with purpose. There is simply running from something and running to something. The same Hebrew root – meaning slave – is found in both places and it is deliberate – we are all slaves to something – we build our lives around ideas and things that we follow. We can either be slaves to Pharaoh or some other impermanent idea, or we can be slaves to God, servants to eternity and ultimate values. Soloveitchik writes, “The purpose of the Exodus is not political freedom, but the conversion of a slave society into a kingdom of Priests – mamlekhet kohanim v’goi kadosh – and a holy nation.”

Freedom must have purpose and direction. If the slaves are simply freed to go off and do whatever they want, that is a lower level of freedom. But, with freedom with purpose, the Jewish people are asked to go to God, to receive God’s revelation, purpose, and direction, – the core of the Torah at Sinai – eternal values, giving them meaning, a system of mitzvot about how to live and how to perfect the world. That is freedom with purpose. That is a very different statement from simply, “Let my people go.”
We do have ultimate purpose and direction. We are given the gift of the Torah, with its core eternal ideas of perfecting the world in the image of God. We are given a handbook and a system of mitzvot that guide our actions, how we speak, how we eat, how we interact, how we behave, how we conduct business, how we grow up, and how we live.

We are blessed to have that purpose. The Israelites were given freedom with purpose, with direction. Not freedom from, but freedom to. May we all aspire to choose freedom with purpose. Mazel tov Harry!