In this week’s Torah portion, we read of the interactions between God’s representatives (i.e., Moshe and Aharon) and the Pharaoh. Ultimately, God sent the Ten Plagues to get a message across to Pharaoh, whose heart had hardened. We read the first seven of those plagues in this week’s portion. We will read the remaining three next week.
This story is familiar to us. This is the story that we tell each year the service known as the Passover Seder, which Dr. Ron Wolfson of the American Jewish University calls a “talk-feast.” When we teach our children about this story each spring around Pesach time, they inevitably learn the famous phrase that Moshe spoke to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”
While it is true that Moshe said these words on God’s behalf, the truth is that this is only a part of God’s message that God had Moshe deliver. These words never appear alone. They were always uttered together with the reason behind God’s demand that the Hebrews should be freed.
For example, in Exodus 7:16, we read: “Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.”
This is a reminder to us that although the story of the Exodus is largely about freedom, it is also about the responsibility that goes along with that freedom.
God did not take the Israelites out of Egypt in order for them to ignore Divine teaching. Nor did God take them out of Egypt in order for them to worship as Egyptians did. That is why God got so angry at the Children of Israel during their wanderings in wilderness. Instead of appreciating the opportunity which God had given them, they complained about the food and they built a Golden Calf.
God took the Hebrews out of Egypt so that they could continue to be a part of the Covenant between God and our people which began with Avraham. Yet, the freed slaves forgot what they were supposed to do with the great gift of freedom.
In this country, we like to celebrate our rights and freedoms. They are certainly worthy of such approbation and we are fortunate that American Jews have never really had to experience life without those rights and freedoms. However, in Judaism, we must also acknowledge that the greatest benefit of our freedom is the opportunity to do God’s will through the Mitzvot (commandments). Otherwise, we’re just wandering aimlessly in the wilderness.