Funny story: I went to prepare this Torah portion for services, and gravitated toward these verses. I had these thoughts. I thought, "hm, this seems familiar, have I written about this before?" but I searched my divrei Torah index and there was no d'var Torah on this theme. So I wrote this one. A few days later it occurred to me to go through my archives from last January post by post, and sure enough, in 5773 I wrote a d'var Torah for parashat Bo which works with these very same ideas. Whoops! (I've now edited that index to include last year's d'var Torah.) Anyway, I wrote a new one to offer at shul tomorrow (which will appear here on Sunday.) So here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week which I'm not going to use!
Last week we read about Moses and Aaron going to Pharaoh, asking for permission to take their people into the wilderness to make offerings to Adonai. Pharaoh, not surprisingly, said no. God's response was the first several plagues.
In this week's Torah portion, the plagues continue. And for a moment, Pharaoh relents. "Go worship your God," he snaps to Moses and Aaron. "Who's going with you?"
Moses replies, "We will all go, with our youths and elders; we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds." The phrase "youths and elders" is a rhetorical figure of speech which uses two extremes to convey a totality. The text says "young and old," and we're meant to fill in "and everyone in between."
The Eskenazi and Weiss translation reads "We will all go, regardless of social station." Rich and poor and everyone in between. Those who had assimilated into Egyptian ways, and those who had retained strong Hebrew practices, and everyone in between. Those who had power, and those who were powerless, and everyone in between.
How powerful that in this moment, as Moses has first taken on the mantle of leading our people out of slavery, he insists that making offerings to Adonai is something which all the people must do.
The Hebrew word עבודה (avodah) means service, as in the service of sacrifices we once offered, now replaced by the service of the heart which is prayer. We will read soon in Torah about how the priestly system of sacrifice began in the wilderness, and then about the priestly apparatus which existed once the Temple is built. But here in this moment before the Exodus, Moses offers a glimpse of a radically egalitarian future in which all of us are called to be servants of the Most High.
Not just the priests. Not just the men. Not just those with social standing. All of us.
Unsurprisingly, Pharaoh balks. "May God be with you the same as I mean to let your descendants go with you," he sneers. He knows that it's not possible to serve two masters, and that if he lets us be in relationship with God, we will no longer be completely under his thumb.
The Hebrew words for slavery and for service come from the same root, ע / ב/ ד. This root is a recurring motif in this week's Torah portion; it appears, in various forms, 21 times (an average of once every three verses!)* In the haggadah we read avadim hayyinu, "we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt..." And once we enter into covenant with God at Sinai we become avdei Adonai, servants of the Most High. The word denoting service is the same...but who or what are we serving? That's what makes all the difference.
In the Jewish understanding, we don't shrug off Pharaoh's chains in order to be completely unfettered, free of responsibility to anyone or anything. The truest freedom comes in choosing to serve: to serve the greater good, to serve creation, to serve the source of love in the universe. Either our lives belong to Pharaoh -- to overwork, to empire, to power-over, to that force which seeks to dominate and to own us -- or they belong to the Source of all, the Wellspring of creation, the One Who speaks and the world comes into being.
The gift of Shabbat is that it removes us from Pharaoh's domain every week. No matter what our obligations -- to our jobs, to the bank which holds the mortgage, to social pressures or unrealistic expectations -- on one day each week, we let all of that go. We stop serving our bosses and instead remember that we are truly servants of God, blessed and enlivened by that enduring relationship with something greater than ourselves.
And that is true no matter who we are. Young and old, righteous and wicked, rich and poor, all of these binarisms and everyone in between -- all of us are called to offer our hearts and our hands.
After two more plagues, Pharaoh changes his mind again. "Fine," he says, "all of your people can go, but leave behind your flocks and herds." And Moses says no, we need to take everyone and everything. "We shall not know with what we are to worship God until we get there." The simplest understanding of that line is that he's talking about animals for sacrificing. In those days we offered praise and thanksgiving through animal sacrifice; the Hebrews needed all of their livestock in case God asked for more sheep or goats. But I think this line from Torah has a deeper truth which is clear to us today in our post-sacrificial world: when it comes to divine service, we have to bring all that we are.
We never know which parts of ourselves will be needed, which talents or skills or ideas or yearnings will fit the bill. We won't know, we can't know, how we will serve God until we reach each new moment, each new challenge. That's why we have to bring all of us: not only the whole community, but also all of each individual person's body, mind, heart, and soul.
If we leave any person behind -- if we leave any part of ourselves behind -- we won't be able to serve wholly (or to serve the Holy.) When it comes to serving God, all of us have to bring our all.