The Steps of Freedom

Leaving Egypt was not a quick fix; it was a slow process, made up of many stages. While each plague made Pharaoh more defiant, more stubborn, the Jews, who looked on in awe at the humbling of Egypt, were strengthened in their belief in the God of their fathers and mothers. God's sudden involvement in human history was dramatic, and it reinforced the faith of the slaves in the promise of freedom that had been handed down from one generation to the next.

As the days, weeks, and months wore on, the Egyptians became preoccupied with their own survival. Still reeling from the previous plague, they braced themselves for the next display of Divine wrath. With each passing day, they had less and less energy to spend on routine matters, and the vise around the necks of the slaves loosened. As the masters devolved into cowering, trembling victims of Pharaoh's coldhearted policy of denial, the Hebrew slaves were gradually liberated from their servitude – simply because their masters were preoccupied with their own survival.

Parashat Bo describes the plague of darkness, during which the Egyptians were completely incapacitated, but the Jews, who were no longer slaves, were not quite free. Several more stages of emancipation would have to ensue before their transformation would be complete, and these would come in rapid succession, in the course of less than twenty-four hours: First, they Jews would hold the prototypical Passover Seder, which would be followed first by the death of Egypt's firstborn at midnight, and then, finally, by their own march to freedom, in broad daylight, the following day. Each of these elements was a distinct stage in their emancipation.

The most obvious aspect of their freedom is the exodus itself, as they walked out of Egypt after a night of awe and wonders. At that point, they were truly free: A nation emerged from under the oppression of another nation. Their journey to the Land flowing with milk and honey had begun, albeit after a stop at the mountain known as Sinai. Although their march to the Promised Land would take longer than they anticipated, they made their journey as a free and independent nation.

The night before, Egypt had been struck; every Egyptian family was in mourning for their own firstborn. Egyptian culture was built on a hierarchical system of primogeniture, in which the firstborn ruled the family by controlling the younger siblings who in turn, controlled the lower classes, who in turn controlled the slaves.  Pharaoh himself was the firstborn of the firstborn of the firstborn; as Rabbi Soloveitchik, echoing his great-grandfather Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Ha'amek Davar, Shmot 15:1), explained, the entire Egyptian economy was based on the ascending order of privilege and power, and rested on slave labor. The visual representation of this system is the pyramid – with Pharaoh at its pinnacle, and the plague of the firstborn brought this pyramid of power crashing down. In a very real sense, the final plague liberated the Egyptians from the tyranny of their own political and economic system at the stroke of midnight.

With his empire in ruins and his own family decimated, Pharaoh commands the Jews to leave Egypt, but in a final act of defiance, the Jews disregard Pharaoh's command. They refuse to sneak out like thieves in the night, and instead choose to leave on their own terms, in their own time, in broad daylight. The time and terms of their departure bolster their dignity and sense of personal liberty, while simultaneously giving their erstwhile oppressor one final slap in the face: Pharaoh, the self-styled “sun god,” cannot bend a nation of slaves to his will, even under the blazing sun.

Only a few hours earlier, the Jews experienced another stage of freedom. As each extended family gathered for the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb offering, the Jews - for a first time in a very long time – experienced religious freedom. The symbol of Egypt was sacrificed to the God of Israel, and its blood was displayed for all to see, on the doorposts of every Jewish home.

There are many facets of emancipation, many kinds of freedom: Religious freedom, political freedom, economic freedom, national self-definition and self-determination. Step by step, God led the Jews through the many stages that brought them their complete freedom, allowing them to appreciate and savor each step along the way.

This multi-stage process addresses another very human need: As each aspect of freedom is experienced, the imagination of the not-yet-emancipated slave is re-awakened. After generations of slavery, they are given a taste of freedom that stirs them, for the first time, to imagine, to anticipate, to look to the future and envision a new reality. The Targum (Pseudo) Yonatan illustrates this concept in a brief but fascinating comment:

‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. (Shmot 19:4).

The straightforward reading of the verse is sequential: First, God took us out of Egypt, and then He brought us to Mount Sinai (“brought you to Me”). Targum (Pseudo) Yonatan's read is very different:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians; and how I took you upon clouds which are comparable to eagles' wings, from Ramses, to the place of the Beit Hamikdash, there to perform the Passover (offering); and in the same night I brought you back to Ramses, and from there have brought you here, to (receive) the instruction of My Torah. (Targum (Pseudo) Yonatan, Shmot 19:4)

This interpretation suggests that on the night of Passover, before midnight, the Jews were transported from their primitive slave dwellings to the glorious Temple in Jerusalem, where they sacrificed the Paschal offering and observed the Passover seder. Rather than telling us what happened that night, the Targum (Pseudo) Yonatan may be trying to convey what the Jews experienced that night: Having achieved religious freedom, they felt as if they were in Jerusalem, a free people celebrating Passover in the Holy Temple, the heart of their Homeland. The act of religious freedom, of serving God as proud and free Jews, gave them the ability to believe in all of the other aspects of their freedom. Experientially, they were in Jerusalem that night. They were free – in mind, in spirit, in thought, in belief. All that remained was to relocate.

Every year, every Jew relives this experience. The objective of the celebration of Passover is to transport our extended family – each and every extended family that makes up the People of Israel - to Jerusalem. Whether in North Africa or Warsaw, in luxury or in poverty, free or under foreign domination, celebrating Passover enabled Jews throughout history, regardless of the boundaries of time and place, to feel what it meant to leave Egypt. More than that, it allowed them to feel what it is like to be completely free, and to celebrate that freedom in Jerusalem.

Perhaps (Pseudo) Yonatan allowed his own imagination to run wild; historically, factually, the Jews celebrated Passover in Egypt that night. Experientially, though, he captured what the Jews felt that night in Egypt. The first step to emancipation is the belief that freedom is possible. Only when we believe that it can be do we begin to hope, to yearn. Only then can we be truly free.

For more essays and lectures on Parashat Bo: