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    Three types of slavery

    Slavery in Egypt, from the Barcelona Haggadah, 14th century

    Slavery in Egypt, from the Barcelona Haggadah, 14th century

    The Haggadah makes it all sound so clear: Avadim Hayinu l’Faro b’Mitzrayim, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”.

    Actually avadim, slaves, has a number of possible meanings, and before we celebrate Pesach we need to investigate how it applies to our ancestors in Egypt.

    Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik distinguishes between two types of slavery – juridic (physical) and typological (moral and intellectual).

    In the first category the slave belongs to his master because of the political system. It is his status that is at issue. In the second category, his mind, will and dignity are crushed: at issue is his personality.

    Both forms of slavery affected the Israelites in Egypt. The Haggadah says, “We shall sing You a new song for ge’ulatenu, our redemption (juridic) and p’dut nafshenu, the liberation of our soul (typological)”.

    In both types of slavery, a person is “a man without options”. He cannot change the political system or assert his personality. He needs God.

    Yet now, it seems, he moves to a third type of slavery. In place of a human master, God says, Avadai hem – “They are My slaves” (Lev. 25:42).

    But there is a difference between the first two types of slavery and the third. In the first two, the slave is without options. Now he has emerged from a life without options to be God’s willing servant. No longer enslaved by duress, he enlists his freedom in the service of God.

    Says the Rav, “In surrendering to God, man truly achieves freedom. He is no longer tormented by psychologically depressing anxieties. He is bolstered by his faith in the transcendental orderliness of things and in God’s ultimate compassion”.

    An impressive analysis, but we have to ask at least two further questions:

    • Is it really the case that there is nothing a slave can do to free himself from his slavery whether juridic or typological?

    • What happens if the erstwhile slave, having been redeemed by God, chooses not to come under the Divine aegis and says, “Enough of slavery – and I don’t want to be a slave/servant even to God”?

    To the first question the answer is that unless the slave determines that he will not succumb to his oppression and learn to live with it, he cannot respond when God says, “Come, it’s time to go”. He has to be mentally ready to go, but the actual redemption is too big for him to achieve on his own.

    The second question appears fair enough. Having been freed by God, a person can well decide he wants to be free from God. It must remain an option, but it carries a danger. Being free to go anywhere and be anything, he can find himself rudderless, bored and lost. Being free requires a purpose in life. Whatever you call it, that is God.

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