From Slaves of Pharaoh to Servants of God

Va'era By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jan 8, 2013 / 5773

The opening of Parashat Va’era shows God reiterating the ancestral promise of redemption to a still reluctant Moses. Aaron will accompany Moses as a spokesperson, and the two will appear before Pharaoh demanding the freedom of the enslaved Israelites. God places this drama against the background of prophets and patriarchs before Moses, recalling covenantal promises and acknowledging the suffering of the Israelites. The Israelite God will now enter history through what has become known as the “four languages of redemption”: “I will free you from slavery,” “I will redeemyou with an outstretched arm,” “I will take you to be My People,” and “I will bring you into the Land.” (Some are quick to identify a fifth expression, “I will give you the Land as a possession.”) How are we to understand the notion of Israelite redemption? Do the Israelites truly free themselves of servitude?

Joseph B’khor Shor shares an essential interpretation of Israelite redemption: far from becoming “free agents,” the Israelites transition from the authority of one master to that of another. According to our exegete, when God declares “and I will take you as My People,” God’s message is to say that God will be a more benevolent master than Pharaoh. God is on one hand “lowering” the Divine Self to become the master of these former slaves; and, on the other hand, the Israelites choose to raise themselves by serving a higher authority.

On some profound level, B’khor Shor inverts our common understanding of yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) and redemption. Though associations with liberation from bondage conjure images of shackles breaking, the Israelites are far from unfettered. They now become the servants of God. And it is through the structure of covenant, law, and relationship that they become free to live meaningful, purposeful, and holy lives. Eschewing freedom that leads to chaos and idolatry, God and the Israelites choose a different path—one that will lead to a prophetic and divine vision of a world repaired.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.