Let My People Go

We’ve all heard and sung the old African-American spiritual, “Go Down Moses,” with the famous words, “Let My people go.”                    

We all know at least the outline of the story of the Exodus and the Haggadah and we see Moses say to Pharaoh, “Let My people go.”

But chances are that we don’t know the other half of this verse. This is the challenge in being Jewish today.

When Moses and Aaron come to Pharaoh to plead their people’s cause, they say to him, “Thus says the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.

Later, when Moses repeats G-d’s demand, he says, ‘This is what the Lord, G-d of the Hebrews, says: “Let my people go, that they may worship me.I don’t think it’s an accident that we know the first part of this verse but not the second half. For us, Passover is about freedom, plain and simple, but freedom is often cast in a uniquely American way in our conversations around the Seder table. Freedom is throwing off the constraints of tyrants and safeguarding the rights of the people. America was built on a Bill of Rights. We bristle at the idea that anyone, including the government, would place limits on our rights as Americans. And so, we tend to err on the side of giving people the greatest possible
latitude in living as they see fit. That has been the great blessing of living in this country but there is an inherent danger in emphasizing freedom over responsibilities.

Of course, Passover is the Festival of Freedom as we see in the Siddur and the Haggadah. It is referred to as Hag hamatzot, z’man heiruteinu, “The festival of unleavened bread, the season of our freedom.” Passover is not so much about “freedom from” as it is about “freedom to;” that is choosing who to serve, how to serve them and how to live a life of responsibility to others and to G-d.

There can be no freedom in a society that does not protect the poor and vulnerable and in which people are divided between haves and have-nots.

And there can be no freedom in a world in which we do not protect the stranger in our midst. The Bible only commands us to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves’ once; we are commanded thirty-six times to show concern for the rights and the welfare of the stranger.

How free are we if we are living in fear for our lives? If our children cannot go to school without worrying about an active shooter or other acts of violence taking place? No society exists without constraints. If we live together then what we need is freedom built on a sense of higher moral values.

That is what Passover is all about. Nowhere in the Haggadah are we told that freedom is our inalienable right. The Exodus is the story of liberation from slavery and tyranny, but the story did not end there – it led to Mount Sinai.

So why are we so afraid to acknowledge that in order to live a good life, we cannot afford to live without obligations? Mutual responsibility is what makes us a community and
allows us to live together.

Shelach et ami – “Let my people go” – Va’ya’avdunithat they may serve me.” That may be the most important word in the Bible. It is at the heart of the wicked child’s question. Mah ha’avodah hazot lachem? “What is this service to you?” The wicked child does not want to think that in order to be a part of a community he or she must be willing to live with others and serve others.

Freedom is not a right; it is a responsibility. We have to earn it every day.

There can be no future to Jewish life unless we are willing to build a community on this premise. It was never easier to reject Judaism than it is today – but it was never more important to our future to embrace and live Judaism in our personal and communal lives. More than affiliation, freedom means that you are willing to live a Jewish life, embrace the moral values of Judaism, and define your existence by Jewish time.

Only then will we fulfill the challenge, “That they may serve me.”

Hag Sameach.
Rabbi Scolnic