What is it that Moses demands of Pharaoh? Ask most people and they will respond,"Let my people go." Indeed, in Cecil B. DeMille's retelling of the Exodus in the movie The Ten Commandments (1956), that is exactly what Charlton Heston (as Moses) does ask. The film leaves out the second half of the statement, however, a phrase that completely changes the intent. In Torah, Moses speaks but it is God who demands of Pharaoh— Shalach et ami v'yaavduni ,which literally translates as"Let My people go that they may worship Me . . ." (Exodus 7:16, 7:26, 9:1, 9:13; cf. 4:23, 5:1, 6:11).
The difference between the film and the text is not just about who is speaking; it is about the very nature of the Exodus itself (remember what you were always taught—the movie is good, but the book is better!). The brief"Let my people go" implies that the ultimate goal is freedom from tyranny. This makes perfect sense coming from Hollywood and rooted in the American psyche. The United States, after all, was founded in a revolutionary attempt of a people to establish their freedom from the British Crown.
Torah, however, is not so much about"freedom from" as it is about"freedom to." What this means is that freedom has two, sometimes diametrically opposed, meanings."Freedom from" implies openness to everything. It is, in the extreme, an unbridled expression of one's desires unfettered by any external restraint."Freedom to" suggests that our yearnings should be connected to something or someone that makes demands upon our lives.
The fulfillment of the demand to"send forth" ( shalach ) the slaves occurs in the first sentence of our portion— Yay'hi b'shalach Paroh et haam," Now when Pharaoh let the people go . . ." (Exodus 13:17). What are the implications of such freedom?
The answer is revealed almost at the outset of the Exodus when the People of Israel come to a place called Pihahiroth. In his commentary on the Torah, Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1800–1854), commonly known as the Ishbitzer, suggests:
They called it"Pi-Hachirot" [because] the nations believe that wherever they can extend themselves and do all that their hearts desire, that is where they are most free [ ben chorin ]. . . . But, the truth is the opposite. The nations are actually enslaved to this idol. Since their hearts are not under their control, and their minds exercise no authority over them, their passions rule over them. And, there is no slavery greater than this. ( Mei Hashiloach on Exodus 14:2, translation by Rabbi Jonathan Slater)
The Ishbitzer's comments need to be understood in the context of earlier explanations of this term. One midrashsays that" chirot means place of the licentiousness of the Egyptians" ( M'chilta , B'shalach 1). The derivation of this interpretation is from a playful pun of chirot with the Hebrew word for"freedom" ( cheirut ). According to these commentaries, at the outset of the Exodus the People of Israel are presented with a"freedom from" all limits and boundaries. The yearnings of the heart seem like freedom, but they are just another kind of idolatry—a worshiping of selfish desires.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that an overabundance of freedom actually diminishes us:"Freedom is the liberation from the tyranny of the self-centered ego" (“Religion in a Free Society," in The Insecurity of Freedom [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1966], p. 15). All living beings have wants and desires. What may be unique to human beings is the freedom from rule by instinct—by our passions and self-indulgences. Heschel points out that it is good to place limits upon unfettered freedom of rule by instinct. In fact, it is self-limitation that is a defining characteristic of being human.
How we limit is no less important than that we do limit. Freedom, as stated already, is not only an exemption"from" responsibility, but also the ability"to" do what is right in God's eyes. Thus, a comment in another midrash offers that the place was called Pihahiroth because the People of Israel remained chaste ( B'midbar Rabbah 20:23). At this very early stage in their journey, then, while others saw freedom as an abandonment of all limitations, the People of Israel showed that freedom is an exercise in discretion and boundary setting.
The limitation of personal freedom, however, carries within it seeds of no less a danger. Eric Fromm, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish world but eventually turned toward humanism, taught that we either embrace or rebel against freedom. The goal, for him, is to be a free and independent being. This freedom"to" act, however, is a difficult responsibility, and demands limits in the context of our relationship with others. In the face of such overwhelming obligation, many limit their freedom, either by yielding to an external authority or even by seeking to destroy others who would give too much freedom."If the economic, social and political conditions" are insufficient, Fromm argues, freedom becomes"‘an unbearable burden'" ( Escape from Freedom [New York: Rinehart, 1941], p. 37). As he lived in an age of fascism and totalitarian communism, Fromm's political psychology helps make sense of how so many people were willing to yield to a freedom-limiting authority.
The goal of the Exodus is a"freedom to" serve God. This is the fine act of balance of standing at the place of cheirut –—“freedom." The individual yearnings of the heart can, indeed, enslave us. And when we give in to our passion without forethought, we sometimes look back and berate ourselves for allowing our heart to rule over our brain. At the same time, there is a fear of freedom, for it carries with it a sense of obligation and responsibility for our actions. Again and again on their journey in the wilderness, the People of Israel look back longingly upon their slavery, for the path of freedom can be a demanding one. Taking personal responsibility is not easy.
Giving in to God is, then, both a check on our freedom (from self-desire) and a goad toward freedom (not to abandon this gift to any other human authority). It is a difficult, but ennobling task—and one that is the ultimate gift given to us by a faith that has as its goal the liberation of the human spirit.
Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz is the senior rabbi at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York. He has taught at Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, JLearn on Long Island, and the URJ Kallah. He is immediate past president of the Alumni Association of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and was chair of the Joint Commission on Sustaining Rabbinic Education. He can be reached at email@example.com.