Our Torah portion contains a startling revelation about our ancestors in Egypt. We read that God speaks to Moses and instructs him to bring the good news to the Israelites, the good news that God has not forgotten them, that He will deliver them from Egyptian bondage, that He will take them to be His own people, that He will bring them to the land which He promised to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exod. 6:6–8).
One might expect that when Moses repeated these words, they would have been received by the Israelites with jubilation, that the prospect of an end to the dark night of their oppression would have uplifted their spirits and caused them to flock around Moses gratitude and enthusiasm. Instead, we read, But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to him, מקצר רוח ומעבודה קשה, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage (Exod. 6:9).
Surely this is somewhat paradoxical. We would expect that the greater the suffering of a people, the more eager they would be to hear that they could soon be free. Yet this verse implies the opposite: that the oppression of the Israelites was such that they could no longer respond to the message of freedom.
Explaining the surprising reaction, some of the rabbis said that the Israelites were simply afraid that Moses would get them into deeper trouble. At the end of last week’s parashah, we saw Moses and Aaron first appearing before Pharaoh and telling him to “let My people go” (Ezod. 5:1). What was Pharaoh’s reaction> He increased the toil of the Hebrew slaves (Exod. 5:6–9). And so when Moses appeared again to the people with the word of God, they turned away from him, for fear that things would get even worse. They were afraid that any talk of freedom would only get the authorities angrier and make their lot more difficult. They were afraid to think of freedom because of the chance that the chance might fail.
Another interpretation suggests that while the Israelites were in Egypt, they became accustomed to the Egyptian manner of idol worship. When Moses came and spoke of a God who could not be seen, the people were too closely tied to their idolatrous practices to take him seriously. It was the powerful appeal of paganism that led to their indifference. Idols and images are immediate and obvious; they can bee seen and felt; they appeal to all the senses; they constantly reassure the worshipper that the gods are near. By contrast, the God of which Moses spoke was invisible and mysterious, difficult to comprehend. Not the physical oppression but the spiritual slavery of paganism made the Israelites unwilling to respond to the message of Moses. Accustomed to the familiar religion of the Egyptians, they were afraid to bind up their destiny with a God they could not see.
A third interpretation is in some ways the most appealing of all. It is possible for a people to be so enslaved that they no longer want to be free. Despite the horrors of slavery, one can argue that it affords certain securities. The slave knows that if he does what he is required to do, everything will be provided for him. He does not have to worry about his next meal, he does not need to make difficult and soul-searching decisions, he does not have to face unfamiliar and challenging new situations. To such a person, the prospect of freedom, of suddenly being faced with choices and uncertainty, decisions and unfamiliar new circumstances, must be terrifying. The Israelites in Egypt had been oppressed to the point where they had developed a slave mentality, where they were afraid to be free.
This frame of mind, which the psychologist Erich Fromm called “fear of freedom”, is known from other examples. There are prisoners whose sentence ends after decades of incarceration, who simply cannot manage the idea of living in a free society. Many Jews in the 19th century were opposed to the process of political emancipation; they preferred to live in their ghettos, under the oppression of the Russian tsars, rather than to face the challenge of free citizenship in the modern state. In some sense, all of us are salves: to convention, to habit, to our familiar environment, reluctant or unwilling to make the break from the past that is sometimes a necessary expression of true freedom.
There are some members of every religion who subject themselves to the entire body of beliefs and observances, not because they understand them and find them truly meaningful, not because they really believe that God demands this of them in every detail, but because they are told through authority that this is the way it has to be done. Such people find their way of life comfortable and familiar. They are afraid to allow themselves the freedom and the responsibility for making their own informed choices of what to believe and what to observe, so they accept a doctrinaire and authoritarian tradition.
On the other extreme, those who automatically reject all religious beliefs and observances may themselves be no more free. They seem to feel a compulsion to attack every expression of religious commitment, to denigrate every observance of ritual, to ridicule not only the words but the very concept of prayer. The possibility that there may be some reality beyond the capacity of their senses to perceive or their minds to comprehend, some beauty in acts that bind generations of continuity, seems to be frightening. They claim to have found freedom—“There probably is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your lives”—but militant secularism can itself be a strait-jacket.
True freedom means accepting the responsibility to evaluate and choose for ourselves what teachings and values we will make into the cornerstone of our lives. This is the freedom that we in Progressive Judaism prize so highly. Those who blindly accept all, or automatically reject all, may be afraid to accept the challenges and the wonders of freedom.
Wherever we look we find people who prefer to remain enslaved to familiarity, convention, habit and role, people unwilling to take a risk, to be different, to choose and decide for themselves. Our parashah warns us that it is all too easy to fall into this trap. But it also tells us that we must be ready to abandon the security of slavery in Egypt for the challenge of freedom in the wilderness. That is the path that leads to the fulfilment of the Promised Land.
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.