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To What Are You a Slave? Personal Servitude and Freedom

Sermon Shabbat Bo 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

I had the privilege of attending the ONEG conference in the mountains of Colorado this past week, a rabbinic study kallah with an incredible group of capable and supportive rabbis and colleagues. The camaraderie of this group is extraordinary, and the level of discourse and learning is very high. I have been going to this ONEG conference for many years, about 18 or 19 years, and the friendships that have developed after studying, teaching and praying with one another over that time are deep and remarkable.

ONEG is also a place where we get to experience the way other rabbis and cantors lead services, since we study in the morning and late afternoon and then hold evening services together. These services vary in style and substance, and rabbis are comfortable in this collegial setting and this community with taking some unusual chances in the way they lead services. Some of these chances work out really well; others perhaps a bit less so.

The conference is always held around this time of year, when we read the story of the Exodus from Egypt in the Torah reading cycle, as we will tomorrow on our Shabbat Hike Experience in the Northwest at Wild Burro Trail. The Exodus, of course, is a central theme of all Judaism, and the Mi Chamocha, which we chanted earlier tonight, is part of every evening and morning service, a prayer that celebrates being freed from slavery and leaving Egypt. One year at the ONEG conference an energetic younger rabbi was leading services and when we came to the Mi Chamocha he decided to challenge us with a little thought exercise. If you had to leave Egypt in haste the middle of the night, as our ancestors did during the Exodus, what is the one thing you would take with you? He repeated the question: If you had to leave Egypt in the middle of the night what is the one thing you would take with you?

After a moment, various rabbis offered differing answers: I would take my family one said, I would take the mementos of my ancestors said another, I’d take my favorite book or a special melody. The rabbi leading the service dramatically asked again: what is the one thing you would take out of Egypt with you? And then the wife of one of the rabbis, a woman named Brenda Rothschild, answered simply, “Yeast.” And the room dissolved in laughter. After all, anyone who has ever wrestled with creating delicious food during Passover and observed the restrictions on leavening knew exactly what she was talking about: frankly, I wished I had said yeast, too.

In any case, that particular rabbi’s creative service efforts were pretty much derailed. There was no point in going on with that exercise after that answer. All of us who cook were thinking, if only one of those freed slaves had brought yeast with them Pesach would be so much easier.

But in a way, that little affective exercise was a worthy effort, only perhaps it should be taken in a different direction. You see, repeatedly in Jewish tradition we are given the mitzvah, the commandment, to view ourselves as though we personally had come out of Egypt. That is, we are supposed to think of ourselves as genuinely having been slaves. Usually, this is explained, quite rightly, as the requirement to identify with the downtrodden in every society, to remember that we ourselves were once wretched slaves at the bottom of the heap. That means that no matter how well we do we are obligated to help those in need, to try to liberate those who are our generation’s versions of slaves. Long ago God brought us to freedom, after 400 years of servitude. Now, we must help those who are similarly in chains.

Repeatedly in the Torah and of course at Passover and tellingly in every evening and morning service we are told that we must see ourselves as having literally been slaves. That may seem like a far-fetched idea to those of us who have grown up and lived in freedom and comfort in a free country. This is the land of the free, isn’t it? After all, in practical reality we are not servants to anyone and can make our own decisions about our course in life.

Or can we? The truth is, we are not really so free as we imagine that we are. We may not be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, we may not wear shackles on our ankles or wrists, but is it possible that we are all slaves to something? In this free country and free society, maybe some of us—or perhaps most of us—are not really so free after all.

I suggest we try that little thought exercise a little differently tonight. Instead of thinking about what you would have taken out of Egypt with you, think about what it is that, in a way, keeps you there: what enslaves you, personally?

Is there something in your own life that holds you, personally, captive?

The physical, practical goal of the Exodus was to free us from slavery. But what God had Moses request from the Pharaoh first was not physical freedom at all but spiritual freedom, the ability to go and worship God as the Israelites wished to do. In other words, the real goal of the Exodus was spiritual, emotional, even psychological freedom. We may be physically free now. But by the standards that Exodus initially establishes, in truth we are not really all so free.

What is it that enslaves you?

We know that there are, in every community, people who are slaves to their addictions to alcohol, to prescription drugs, to illegal drugs. We know that there are, in every community, those who are slaves to their addictions to food, to gambling, to other seriously damaging behaviors. Less toxically, there are many who are addicted to video games or social media, to viral news feeds and other seemingly harmless but addictive behaviors. Addiction is a kind of slavery, isn’t it?

We also know people trapped in damaging relationships, in toxic work situations, in careers that are unfulfilling and unhappy. There are among us those enslaved by financial pressures. Others are workaholics, unable to free themselves from the prison of eternal obsession with their jobs and careers. We all know people who are slaves to physical illness or incapacity, trapped by their own body’s limitations.

Then there are those people who remain in mourning after a great personal loss, unable to heal from it, still in servitude to that grief. We know people who are slaves to their own inability to show up on time, others who simply can’t make a decision, some who are trapped by their inability to tell the truth.

So, on this night when we read of the Exodus of our people from slavery, I ask you again: what is it that enslaves you, personally? To be able to answer this question requires something akin to absolute honesty, at least with ourselves. It can be hard to admit, but we must seek to answer nonetheless: What traps you, controls you, chains you? To what are you a slave?

It is likely that you can think of more than one thing that subjugates you and keeps you from being truly free. But tonight, see if you can focus on just one thing that makes a slave out of you. The first step is to bravely identify what it is that chains you. Because until you know what it is that enslaves you, you can’t begin to try to become free.

And the next step is to begin to move from subjugation to spiritual freedom, to transition from being captive to being truly, in spirit and heart, free. We know that is not an easy process. But the great lesson of Exodus, of the Torah portion of Bo in which we truly leave Egypt, is that we can break the shackles that trap us. We have the capacity to leave the prisons in which we find ourselves. If we, each of us are to believe that we were slaves, we must also rejoice in the fact that we eventually became free.

So how do we become free of our own captivities? What is the model for how we are to do that?

In Exodus, it requires Ten Plagues and a great deal of divine intervention to accomplish freedom. Alas, unlike Moses, we do not have immediate access to God’s overwhelming power to intercede in the universe. We cannot expect miracles to be done on our behalf, at least not the kind that blot out the sun or unleash locusts on the land.

But remember, we are in a much better position than our slave ancestors were. We do have an understanding of true freedom, and we value it above basic comfort. It was different for our ancestors when they were originally granted freedom from their form of slavery. Here in the Torah liberation pretty much takes place in spite of the Israelites’ best efforts to remain slaves. Many times they are unwilling to accept Moses and Aaron’s efforts to free them, and even after the Exodus and the crossing of the Sea they often talk about returning to Egypt, where they weren’t free but were guaranteed room and board, three hots and a cot, if you will. Interestingly, it is God who insists that the Israelites become free.

What can this teach us about how to break the chains that bind us now?

My friends, after we accept that we are captive to something, the next crucial step is deciding that we wish to be free of this enslavement. That is often the hardest part, of course. Because becoming truly free means stepping away from the familiar into the unknown. It is always easier to stay where we are, to do what we know how to do, even if it is unfulfilling or damaging. Even if it is a kind of servitude, a form of enslavement.

It is that great leap into the unknown that challenges us, and forces us to try to change. It is that which is so very hard to do; yet it is precisely that which Exodus insists upon, what God insists upon here in Exodus, what God promises to help us achieve.

Because, you see, once you have taken that first step, once you admit your enslavement and begin to break free, the Torah promises, God will move to help you, to strengthen your resolve, to increase your ability to become truly free.

That first step is not the end of the process, of course. Achieving freedom, ending captivity and liberating ourselves from our own personal servitude will require steadiness of purpose and help from those who care about us. It also gives us great hope, because God seeks, always, to bring us to true freedom.

And tonight we can commit ourselves to begin that process.

On this Shabbat when we read about how our ancestors reached freedom, may we each be willing to take a large step towards becoming free. May we acknowledge our own captivities, and begin that brave process of moving from slavery to freedom. And may God assist each of us in taking those very necessary steps.

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