What is freedom? It’s a good question to ask as Pesach approaches. The early rabbis called the spring festival that celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, z’man cheiruteinu – ‘the season of our freedom’. Cheiruteinu – ‘our freedom’: the Haggadah that the sages composed for ‘telling’ the tale on the first night of Pesach, reminds us:

B’khol dor va-dor chayyav adam lirot et-atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah mei-eretz mitzrayim.

In every generation, each individual is obliged to regard themselves as if they had gone out from the land of Egypt.

So, as we enter into the Exodus story, we are supposed to relive our ancestors’ experience of slavery and relive and celebrate their liberation.

As we do so, we take it for granted that the Exodus was about an oppressed people becoming free. But that’s not exactly what either the Torah or the Haggadah tells us. Rather, the Eternal, through Moses, repeatedly confronts Pharaoh with this imperative: Shallach et-ammi v’ya’avduni – ‘Let my people go that they may serve Me’ [my emphasis] (Exodus 9:1). As the ritual of ‘laying t’fillin’ – the binding of boxes containing sacred texts on the upper left forearm and forehead – so graphically demonstrates, the Israelites were liberated from bondage in Egypt in order to become the bonded servants of the Eternal.

This week’s parashah, Acharey Mot, makes this point powerfully. Like all the portions of the Torah, Acharey Mot is named after the first significant words of the text. So, at the beginning of the portion, at Leviticus chapter 16, we read (:1):

The Eternal spoke to Moses acharey motafter the death – of the two sons of Aaron, who died as they brought near their offering before the Eternal.

How was it that Aaron’s two eldest sons died as they brought their offering to God? We read in Sh’mini, an earlier portion, at Leviticus chapter 10 (1-2):

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and they offered before the Eternal eish zarah – alien fire – which God had not enjoined upon them. / And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died before the Eternal.

The Torah goes on to offer an explanation for this shocking incident (15: 3-4):

Then Moses said to Aaron: This is what the Eternal meant in saying, ‘through those near to Me I show Myself sacred, and gain glory before all the people.’

Aaron and his sons had an exalted status amongst the people, but nevertheless, they were the servants of the Eternal, bound to do God’s bidding, and forbidden from undertaking anything by their own initiative. Perhaps, Nadab and Abihu had been doing no more than expressing their enthusiasm. Their deadly punishment made it clear that their function was to obey the Eternal – no more, no less – and it seems that their father understood the message: The verse concludes: Va-yidom Aharon – Aaron was silent. A more alliterative translation would be: ‘Aaron was struck dumb’.

The priests were not free – and neither were the ordinary Israelites. Acharey Mot concludes at Leviticus 18, with a passage detailing proscribed sexual acts. The introductory verses of the chapter provide the rationale for these prohibitions. We read (18: 1-4):

The Eternal spoke to Moses saying: / Speak to the Israelites and say to them: I am the Eternal your God. / You shall not practice the ways of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you; nor shall you follow their statutes. / My laws alone shall you observe and my statutes shall you keep, going along the way with them. I am the Eternal your God.

From Egypt to Canaan: a journey of liberation – or a desert boot camp designed to inculcate obedience to the new Master of the slaves? Just take a look at the narrative: the litany of rebellions and mob revolts and the punishing responses of the Eternal – starting with the Divine wrath that followed the building of the molten calf during Moses absence on Mount Sinai (see Ki Tissa, Exodus 32). Why did the journey take forty years, when the people arrived on the Eastern bank of the Jordan in less than two (see Mas’ey, Numbers 33-36)? The narrative following the rebellion of ten of the twelve tribal leaders sent out to reconnoitre the land gives an account of the punishments meted out by the Eternal (Sh’lach L’cha, Numbers 14). In addition to sending a plague against the ringleaders, the rest of the community is condemned to wander for forty years. We read (14: 32-35):

‘Your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness, / while your children roam the wilderness forty years, suffering for your faithfulness, until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness.  / You shall bear your punishment for forty years, corresponding to the number of days – forty days – that you scouted the land: a year for each day. Thus you shall know what it means to thwart Me. / I the Eternal have spoken: Thus I will do to all this evil congregation that has banded against Me: in this wilderness they shall die.’

Whatever you make of the new tyrannical Master of the slaves, one thing is apparent: liberation from bondage in Egypt did not mean freedom. Of course, freedom can never be absolute. We read in Pirkey Avot, the philosophical sayings of the sages appended to the Mishnah (6:2), concerning the words ‘engraved upon the tablets’ (Exodus 32:16):

Do not read, ‘engraved’ (charut), rather [read] ’freedom’ (cheirut).

The Hebrew words, charut and cheirut are based on different roots: charut on the root, Cheit Reish Tav, to ‘engrave’; cheirut, meaning, ‘freedom’, first appears in rabbinic literature, and is related to the root Cheit Reish Reish to be or become ‘free’. Nevertheless, the pun makes a point worth noting: In order for people to enjoy freedom, we need a structured society governed by laws. However, such a society is a far cry from a tyrannical dictatorship. Pesach is just the time to consider the difference, and to resolve to free ourselves from every form of tyranny.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

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Exodus 13: 9 & 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8 & 11:18 – passages from which the binding ritual is derived. The Deuteronomy verses became part of the liturgical text known by its initial word, Sh’ma (Deut. 6:4-9, Deut. 11:13-21 & Numbers 15:37-41).