Freedom Means Thinking for Oneself, Too

A d’var Torah for VaEra (Ex.6:2-9:35) by Bard College President Leon Botstein.

God could have chosen any messenger to lead the people of Israel to freedom. Why choose Moses, “not a man of words…slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10)? The answer may lie in the nature of Israelite slavery in Egypt.

When Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites, the Torah recounts:

“They set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses…The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field.” (Exodus 1:11, 13–14)

Moses’ people lacked freedom of movement and were oppressed in a system of economic servitude, absolute political control, and cultural censorship. But there is no mention of chattel slavery, or people being owned, bought, sold, and denied the status of being human.

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This week, in VaEra, Moses’ specific request to Pharaoh puts an even finer point on the nature of this enslavement. The remedy being sought clarifies the harm. Moses, on behalf of God, says, “Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness” (7:16), repeating the request almost verbatim in 7:26 and 8:16. Then, in 8:21–24, after the fourth plague, we read a strange interchange:

Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘Go and sacrifice to your God within the land.’ But Moses replied, ‘It would not be right to do this, for what we sacrifice to the ETERNAL our God is untouchable to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice that which is untouchable to the Egyptians before their very eyes, will they not stone us! So we must go a distance of three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to the ETERNAL our God as [God] may command us.’ Pharaoh said, ‘I will let you go to sacrifice to the ETERNAL your God in the wilderness; but do not go very far.’

Moses asks Pharaoh for permission to lead his people out of Egypt to reclaim their distinct culture and beliefs. The liberation he seeks seems to be one of re-education. God wishes to reverse the successful acculturation of Moses’ people into Egyptian mores and beliefs.

Is Moses asking for political or national autonomy, one’s own homeland? Or rather a different way of life, the rejection of passive adaptation and conformism to the culture and beliefs of a majority who have the power to oppress? The nature of the slavery or bondage experienced by Abraham’s descendants in VaEra seems more akin to emigration, exile and the subordination of migrant populations — foreigners — in modern history. Hunger and poverty drove communities far away from their presumed homes — the Irish to America, the Turks to Germany, the Algerians to France, Indians, Bengalis and Pakistanis to Britain. After generations of acculturation and assimilation — the absorption of the customs, mores, and language of new economic and political masters — new leaders finally point out the paradox of the loss of dignity and distinction without the achievement of economic, social, or political equality.

Moses never offered to pay to buy his people’s freedom. Instead, what he has been asked by God to do is to liberate his people from the tyranny and cultural monopoly forced on them by the Egyptians. That liberation might not mean moving far away for very long. Pharaoh, backed against the wall by devastating plagues, at last suggests a compromise — autonomy and freedom within Egypt. But then Moses explains that remaining in Egypt — and becoming free in thought, speech, and customs, and achieving the status of thinking for themselves — would not be accepted by the populace. There is no prospect of a pluralistic society of freedom and equality under autocracy and terror. Oppression in VaEra comes not only from above, but also from below.

The people of Israel, who fled their homes and went into exile out of necessity — famine — have not only been humiliated and subordinated, but have, inevitably (and perhaps as a survival mechanism), over time adapted and relinquished their distinctiveness. Moses is calling on Pharaoh to extend freedom of thought and belief to the children of Abraham, and to give them the opportunity to exchange habit, predictability, the status quo, and security for spiritual freedom.

VaEra throws into doubt the simplified story we Jews tell one another on Passover. It suggests a tale similar to the experience of today’s migrants and refugees who are pressing north to escape tyranny, violence, and poverty now exacerbated by climate change. When they arrive — if they are allowed to — they face a new set of challenges: maintaining their distinctiveness in the face of the majority, whether it acts through anger and violence or simply through cultural control. As Moses reminds Pharaoh, homogeneous majorities are disinclined to give people who contradict their beliefs, eat different foods, wear different clothes, and celebrate differently the freedom to do so.

And perhaps that is another level of meaning when, starting with the fourth plague, God makes a separation between the Israelites and the Egyptians (8:19). It is not just that the insects avoid the Israelite towns; the Israelites themselves begin to feel distinct, and perhaps the Egyptians begin to realize the power of that distinctiveness.

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Real human freedom is not to be found just in a piece of land, or citizenship in a homogeneous political structure. Just as Moses must persuade Pharaoh to let Moses’ people become and remain different, he must also persuade his own people that achieving dignity, equality, pride, and control over life and beliefs is a long and arduous mental and spiritual undertaking more daunting than any physical journey.

And that brings us back to Moses’ speech defect, and indeed to the inadequacy of human language. God explains that Moses, given his inability to use speech, should be seen by Egyptians as if he were God and his brother Aaron, who had the gift of fluent speech, a prophet. (Exodus 4:16) Human language — the vehicle of culture and self-knowledge, the tool of human reason and communication, whose command in the form of eloquence and persuasion (and perhaps manipulation) is required in society and politics may be essential, but it cannot be entirely trusted. It can neither represent nor encompass the divine. Converting the speech of God into human speech — as in the exchange with Pharaoh — is flawed, and far harder than translating one language into another. And so God chooses a messenger who is unable to express himself in words, to convince others on his own. Moses remains, in human affairs, dependent on his fellow humans to translate. 

For Egypt to allow multiplicity to flourish — to hear God’s word through Moses and Aaron — would have required the capacity to listen with empathy as a distinguishing feature of its civilization. The plagues would not have been necessary. But Pharaoh (and perhaps Moses’ own Egyptianized people) could be persuaded only by magic (that is, irrationality), violence, fear, and brute force. VaEra confronts us with a society in which freedom and equality could not be reconciled with diversity; a world in which language fails as the instrument of politics, and violence and destruction succeed.

Leon Botstein is the president of Bard College.