This week’s parashah demonstrates the progressive nature of the process of liberation. Up until now, the Israelites’ interactions with G!D were primarily passive in nature. Their journey from slavery to freedom was initially defined by their three direct encounters of G!D’s power and glory. In quick succession, they experienced the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and finally the Revelation at Mount Sinai. However, shortly after the Revelation, this dynamic with G!D changes: rather than being just passive witnesses, their interactions become much more relationally-focused, grounded in a mutual sense of intimacy and responsibility.
This shift is marked by the introduction of a whole litany of social laws that G!D relays to Moses. Effectively, G!D is laying down the ground rules or terms of their relationship. These laws cover a range of inter-personal relationships and communal affairs; including the establishment of holy days, the lending of money, as well as kashrut/sacred consumption. Through these laws, G!D introduces an alternate path for us to encounter G!D. Beyond just being a witness to G!D’s miracles, we can find Holiness through our interactions with each other (i.e., that the way we treat each other matters!)
Curiously, the very first category of laws that G!D relays to the Israelites (through Moses) involves the ownership of slaves. Many commentators have noted the significance of this topic and explored why G!D chose to bring up (and condone!) slavery to a group of newly-freed slaves. Beyond our modern perspectives about the absolute immorality of slavery, we have to wonder what can be learned from G!D’s seeming approval of human slavery.
I believe one answer can be found in patterns that are all too familiar for many of us. Based on our inclinations to operate from a position of extremes (i.e., either/or; black/white), we’re susceptible to the trap of thinking there are only two viable options in a given situation. It’s easy to understand how we fall into this trap. There’s comfort and convenience in identifying things as either good or bad, friend or enemy, broken or fixed. The ease and allure of operating from the extremes factors in to why we see so many victimized and abused individuals eventually become victimizers and abusers themselves. In some ways, conscious or not, these two roles may be the only two options that are known.
After 400 years of exploitation and abuse, the spirit of the newly-freed Israelites was withered and depleted. Even with their liberation, they were reeling from the pain and baggage of their enslavement. As our own experiences can show us, pain and baggage almost always contribute to a narrow, stuck way of thinking and being. I believe G!D knew this and certainly knew the road to their (and our own) recovery is never orderly and straight.
G!D also knows that the ideal human state is one where we are all free from enslavement – both enslavement from within, as well as by others. I believe G!D gave the Israelites the option to assume a position completely opposite of what they had known (that is, to become slave holders) in order to demonstrate that BOTH positions, the slave and the enslaver, are problematic and spiritually harmful.
To be an enslaver requires one to strip away a sense of dignity and respect from those enslaved. Enslaving others requires us to objectify both ourselves and another. For many of us, our first steps of freedom begin when we start taking responsibility for the ways we enslave others by our chaotic, harmful behaviors. We learn that over-identifying with our victimization only leads to trapping ourselves and others into a cycle of misery. Eventually we need to create a new identity, one based on self-respect and self-worth. This new identity takes time to emerge.
Similarly, the Israelites would learn, over the next forty years (and beyond), that they too needed to develop a new identity as a free and responsible people. They needed time to learn that there are consequences and costs to being the one who limits another human’s freedom. They would also learn that the arc of G!D’s plan is to move us from narrow stuck-ness to open expansiveness. However, it takes time for each of us to recognize our roles in this plan and even more time to understand that these roles are rarely at the extremes, but almost always can be found in the nuance and messiness of options not readily apparent when we start our journeys. May we each find some time this Shabbat to celebrate our capacity for progressing along G!D’s path of our freedom.
Chaplain Adam Siegel