At the beginning of the book of Exodus, God’s people are enslaved to a false god; by the book’s end, they have been liberated to serve the real One.
The king of Egypt is not just a brutal taskmaster; he is a brazen and delusional despot: “My Nile is my own,” he declares; “I made it for myself.” (Ezekiel 29:3) A medieval midrash imagines him going even further in his insolence: “I have no need of God,” he says; “I created myself.” (Midrash HaGadol to Exodus 5:2) For Pharaoh, grandiosity and cruelty go hand-in-hand: neither knows any limits at all. In response to the request Moses and Aaron make for a brief opportunity to worship God in the wilderness, Pharaoh places more and more onerous burdens on his increasingly desperate slaves. He disdainfully condemns Moses and Aaron for wanting to cause the Israelites to desist from their labors — and, tellingly, the word the narrator places in his mouth is “hishbatem” (Exodus 5:5), from the same root as the word Shabbat, a day of rest. The reader knows this is intended to acknowledge that God, and God alone, is the Creator. (Exodus 20:11) Thus, in upbraiding Moses and Aaron for wanting to give the Israelites a Sabbath, Pharaoh unwittingly reveals the vast gulf separating avdut — enslavement to a human master — from avodah — dignified service to the God of Israel.
Exodus begins with the Israelites forced to build cities for a human king who views them as a potential threat to his rule and treats them accordingly; it ends with the people engaged in building a tabernacle (mishkan) in which the God who has redeemed them can dwell. This trajectory is crucial to Jewish theology: The people move from “perverted work, designed by Pharaoh to destroy God’s people… [to] divinely mandated work, designed to bring together God and God’s people, in the closest proximity possible in this life.” As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites work without respite against their will. When they build the tabernacle, in stark contrast, Moses asks for voluntary contributions: “Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them.” (Exodus 35:5) Finally freed from slavery, the Israelites are slowly being taught that there is a form of service radically different from slavery, one that honors and nurtures one’s sense of agency rather than degrading it and whittling it away.
Not surprisingly, then, as Moses lays out instructions for how to build the tabernacle, he starts by invoking Shabbat: “On six days, work may be done, but on the seventh day, you shall have a sabbath of complete rest (Shabbat Shabbaton), holy to the Lord…” (Exodus 35:2) An unbridgeable chasm divides enslavement to a human tyrant and service to the God of creation and covenant: Whereas, as we saw above, the former prohibits even a moment of Shabbat, the latter actually mandates and regularizes it. If, in serving Pharaoh, the Israelites were stripped of their dignity, in serving God, they will have it affirmed. Moreover, they will be charged with affirming it themselves. God commands them to take their own dignity seriously.
Is Shabbat about affirming that God, and God alone, is God, or is Shabbat a testimony to human dignity and the importance of rest? The biblical answer is that it is both. The Bible sees no contradiction between a day aimed at affirming
God as sovereign over the entirety of creation and a day aimed at insisting that everyone, including slaves male and female, is entitled and obligated to rest. (Exodus 20:10) Observing Shabbat is a claim about who the Israelites serve, but also, and crucially, about how the One they serve understands and treats them. Therein lies a key difference between service to God and enslavement to a human pretender: Whereas the latter systematically dehumanizes his subjects, the former values and cherishes them. Work and service come in dignified and degrading versions; the Bible is, in part, about a journey from the latter toward the former.
It is critical to emphasize that the journey the Israelites take — from one building project to another — transforms them from slaves of an earthly ruler to servants of a Heavenly One. Freedom, as imagined by the book of Exodus, is decidedly not about casting off the burdens of service altogether. In fact, it says a great deal about our secularized society and its often-impoverished conceptions of freedom, that while we often cite the demand that Pharaoh “let my people go!” we omit the telos of that call, “that they may serve Me.” Perhaps we should make the point differently: The Torah is passionately concerned with a journey from slavery to freedom, but it imagines freedom in ways that are different from (one is tempted to say antithetical to) the ways freedom is commonly spoken of in contemporary terms, in capitalist, consumerist America. Doing whatever I want whenever I want, is arguably not freedom at all, but enslavement to impulse. The depths of freedom are discovered not in self-assertion but in rare moments of authentic self-transcendence. Authentic freedom, Jewish theology insists, is found in service to something (and Someone) greater than oneself.2
1 Ellen F. Davis, “Slaves or Sabbath-Keepers? A Biblical Perspective on Human Work,” Anglican Theological Review 83:1 (Winter 2001), pp 30-31. My own analysis is heavily indebted to Davis’ provocative study of Exodus.
2 It should, though, be noted that we must tread carefully here, because, as Isaiah Berlin famously warned, invocations of positive liberty are a favored tool of totalitarians — and, we ought to add, of religious bullies of all stripes. Once some people presume to know who other people really are deep down, and thus to have greater insight than they into what they truly want, the very real danger of political oppression in the name of “self-mastery” or some purportedly higher freedom emerges in full force. This sobering fact, all too often ignored by religious apologists, points to a crucial line we moderns ought to uphold: Invocations of self-transcendence and of more authentic, deeper, truer selves must rely on persuasion rather than force. We should allow people the freedom to discover what we insist is their true freedom.email print