Rabbi YY Jacobson
Rabbi YY JacobsonIsrael National News

Three Boys

Three boys are in the schoolyard bragging of how great their fathers are.

The first one says: "Well, my father runs the fastest. He can fire an arrow, and start to run, I tell you, he gets there before the arrow."

The second one says: "Ha! You think that's fast! My father is a hunter. He can shoot his gun and be there before the bullet."

The third one listens to the other two and shakes his head. He then says: "You two know nothing about fast. My father is a civil servant. He stops working at 4:30 and he is home by 3:45!"

The First Commandment

The Biblical account of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt has been one of the most inspiring stories for the oppressed, enslaved and downtrodden throughout history. From the American Revolution, to the slaves of the American South, to Martin Luther King’s Let Freedom Ring, the narrative of the Exodus provided countless people with the courage to hope for a better future, and to act on the dream.

Moses’ first visit to Pharaoh demanding liberty for his people only brought more misery to the Hebrew slaves; the Egyptian monarch increased their torture. The Hebrews now would not listen any longer to the promise of redemption. Now let us pay heed to this seemingly strange verse in Exodus, in the Torah portion of Vaeira:

So G-d spoke to Moses and to Aaron, and He commanded them to the children of Israel, and to Pharaoh the king of Egypt, to let the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt. [1]

G-d is charging Moses with two directives: Command the people of Israel and then command Pharaoh the king. However, the verse is ambiguous: What did G-d command Moses to instruct the people? The message for Pharaoh is clear: Let the children of Israel out of Egypt. But what is it that Moses is supposed to command the people themselves?

The Jerusalem Talmud[2] says something profoundly enigmatic:

G-d instructed Moses to command to the Jewish people the laws of freeing slaves.

The Talmud is referring to a law recorded later in Exodus:[3] If a Jew sells himself as a slave, the owner must let him go after six years. He is forbidden to hold on to the slave for longer. This was the law Moses was to share with the Israelites while they were in Egyptian bondage.

The Basis for the Commentary

The Talmud bases this novel and seemingly unfounded interpretation on a fascinating narrative in the book of Jeremiah: [4]

Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying: So says the Lord G-d of Israel; I made a covenant with your fathers on the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves, saying: "At the end of seven years you shall let go every man his brother Jew who has been sold to you, and when he has served you for six years you shall let him go free from you."

The question is, where do we find a covenant made by G-d with the Jewish people when they left Egypt to free their slaves? In a brilliant interpretation, the Talmud suggests that this is the meaning of the above enigmatic verse, “G-d spoke to Moses and to Aaron, and He commanded them to the children of Israel, and to Pharaoh the king of Egypt, to let the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” The commandment to the children of Israel was to set free their slaves.

Yet this seems like a cruel joke. The Children of Israel at this point were crushed and tormented slaves themselves, subjugated by a genocidal despot and a tyrannical regime, enduring horrific torture. Yet, at this point in time, G-d wants Moses to command them about the laws relevant to the aristocrat, the feudal lord, the slave-owner?![5]

What is more, as the Torah puts it: “G-d commanded them to the children of Israel, and to Pharaoh the king of Egypt to let the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” It seems like the two instructions—the one to the Israelites and the one to the Egyptian king—are linked. And furthermore: the commandment to the Israelites preceded the commandment to Pharaoh. But what does the commandment to the Jewish people that they free their slaves one day in the future have to do with the mission to Pharaoh to set the Hebrews free from bondage?

Who Is Free?

The answer to this question is profoundly simple and moving, and is vital to the understanding of liberty in Judaism.

Before Pharaoh can liberate the Jewish slaves, they must be ready to become free. You can take a man out of slavery, but it may prove more challenging to take slavery out of a man. Externally, you may be free; internally you may still be enslaved.

What is the first and foremost symptom of being free? That you learn to confer freedom on others.

The dictator, the control freak, or the abusive spouse or parent, does not know how to give others freedom. He or she feels compelled to force others into the mold that he/she has created for them. Uncomfortable in his own skin, he is afraid that someone will overshadow him, expose his weaknesses, usurp his position or make him feel extra in this world. Outwardly he attempts to appear powerful, but inwardly his power is a symptom of inner misery, insecurity, and confinement.

When I am living in active trauma, my relationships and emotions are guided and shaped by the trauma--the need to survive in a scary and unsafe world. How can I give up control? How can I celebrate otherness? How can I even connect with someone in a genuine and authentic way when I needed to put my heart on lockdown in order to survive?

I am simply not capable of truly celebrating another person's life and individuality, because I am desperate each moment for emotional oxygen; all I can think of is how to remain protected in a world that is dangerous.

Who is powerful? He who empowers. Who is free? He who can free others. Who is a leader? He who creates other leaders.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power,” Abraham Lincoln said. Ask yourself, do you know how to celebrate the soaring success of your loved ones and constituents? Do you encourage them to spread their wings and maximize their potentials? Can you allow others to shine?

Pharaoh may set you free physically. But former slaves can become present tyrants. People who were abused sometimes become abusers themselves. It is what they know about life; it is the paradigm they were raised with. They grew up in abuse and slavery, so they continue the cycle with others. The first Mitzvah the Jews had to hear from Moses before even he can go to Pharaoh to let them go free was: One day you will be free. Remember that freedom is a gift; use it to free others.

As it turns out, this is a remarkable Talmudic insight. The first commandment ever given to the Jewish people was: Don’t internalize what the Egyptians have done to you. Find the spark of freedom, the inner Divine core, that no trauma can tarnish or paralyze; that part has remained free and will cherish conferring it upon others.

On a personal note, this week I attended the shivah of Avrumi Schapiro, Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (son of the Noraler Rebbe from Benei Berak), 61, who passed away suddenly last Friday night in his home in Boro Park. Talking to his wife, Shoshi, and their beautiful children, I could viscerally feel the image of the person whom I knew for many years. Someone who felt empowered by empowering others; a person who came to life by bringing life, joy, and fulfillment to others. He mastered the secret of freedom and celebration – letting go and enjoying the laughter of others.


[1] Exodus 6:13.

[2] Rosh Hashanah Chapter 3:5. See the commentary of the Karban Heidah ibid. See at length Torah Shleimah Parshas Vaeira for all the commentary on this Talmudic statement.

[3] Exodus 21:2

[4] 34:12-14

[5] See Meshech Chachmah (By Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen, the Rabbi of Devink and author of Or Samach) to Parshas Vaeira for his novel explanation, that there were Egyptian Jews at the times who owned Jewish slaves. Moses instructed them to set their slaves free. Cf. Torah Shleimah ibid for additional explanations.