In this week’s Torah portion, Moses argues with Pharaoh about letting the people go.
It’s framed as “let the people go so they may worship Adonai.” Torah doesn’t speak in terms of freedom for its own sake. Moshe seeks his people’s freedom from servitude and oppression and hard labor — and, it’s not just about being freed from, it’s also about being freed toward.
Pharaoh suggests he might let them go, but only the men, which Moses rejects: no, we’re not leaving women and children behind. Then Pharaoh suggests he might let them go, but says they can’t take herds or flocks with them. And Moshe says no, because:
וַאֲנַ֣חְנוּ לֹֽא־נֵדַ֗ע מַֽה־נַּעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־ה׳ עַד־בֹּאֵ֖נוּ שָֽׁמָּה / “We shall not know with what we are to serve until we get there.”
On the surface, he’s making a practical point. The request was to let our people go so that we could worship God in the wilderness, and the way we did that back then was through animal sacrifice. In the physical world, when he says “we shall not know with what we are to serve” he’s talking about goats and sheep. But in the worlds of emotion and spirit, Moshe’s highlighting a fundamental truth of every new undertaking: we never know what a journey will ask of us.
Going from slavery to freedom, from servitude to Pharaoh to service to the One, from narrow straits to liberation: it’s the core story of Jewish peoplehood. We retell it every year at the Passover seder. We remind ourselves of it every Shabbat when we sing Mi Chamocha, and when we make the kiddush over wine. Those of us who have the practice of daily Jewish liturgical prayer remind ourselves of it every day.
It’s also a core story of our lives. We move from constriction to expansion, from unconsciousness to consciousness, from calcified habits to transformation, over and over again. As we grow up and leave a childhood home for college, or leave the Purple Valley for the wide world outside. As we outgrow old circumstances and start over. As we discover that we can be more than we have been, and then pursue that becoming.
Hold that thought, because I want to pause and look at what it means to serve. I said earlier that Moshe’s request is to free the people, but not so they can be accountable to no one. He seeks to free them from Pharaoh so they can serve God instead. That may sound like trading one master for another. But I think it’s not, and here’s why.
Pharaoh dehumanized us. He signed an executive order to have our baby boys murdered. Pharaoh believed that we were inferior to “regular” Egyptian citizens. Pharaoh saw us as teeming masses of foreigners, people who prayed differently and dressed differently and therefore deserved a lifetime of slavery in the pyramid-industrial complex. When describing how Pharaoh saw us, Torah says “the Israelites were fruitful and they swarmed” — swarmed, like bugs. Being enslaved to Pharaoh meant working for the betterment of someone who saw us as equivalent to cockroaches.
Service to God is the opposite of that. To Pharaoh we were indistinguishable insects, but in God’s eyes each of us is infinitely precious. Torah teaches that every human being is made in the image and the likeness of the One — regardless of race or religion, shape or skin tone. To serve God means to serve the source of love and liberation. It means to choose to align ourselves with the force that brought us out of slavery, and to seek to break the shackles of those who are still enslaved.
But maybe you don’t believe in God, not even the one I just described. That’s okay. We can talk another time about why I’m more interested in engaging with — talking to, wrestling with, demanding things of — than believing in. No matter what you “believe in,” there is service that awaits you, if you’re willing to hear the call. Leave the world a better place than you found it. Work toward justice and human rights for all. Feed the hungry, protect the powerless, speak up for those who are victimized by structures of power and domination. That’s the calling to which Judaism summons us.
And you won’t know what resources you’ll need for that work until you get there. You can learn. You can study. You can prepare with all your might. But the work of making the world a better place will require all of who you are, and you’ll have to reach for strength and courage and conviction that you didn’t know you had. Not once, but over and over again.
Every new chapter requires us to grow and deepen what we can offer to the world. It’s true of a new semester. It’s true of a new relationship, or a new job, or a new Presidential administration. We won’t know with what we are called to serve until we get there. We won’t know what this new adventure demands of us, what internal qualities of kindness or strength, courage or resolve we’re going to need — until we get there.
And “getting there” may be a misnomer. Because every moment asks us to dig deep and draw on the best of who we are. I know what resources I needed for yesterday, but yesterday’s over. I know what resources I needed an hour ago, but that’s then, and this is now. וַאֲנַ֣חְנוּ לֹֽא־נֵדַ֗ע מַֽה־נַּעֲבֹד֙ אֶת–ה׳ עַד־בֹּאֵ֖נוּ שָֽׁמָּה — We won’t know what this new moment asks of us until we reach it. And then there will be another new moment, and another after that.
Right now it’s Shabbes, a deep dive into holy time. This is the time to soak up what nourishes us, to set aside the pressures of the week. This is the time to remember who we truly are — not when we’re defining ourselves through what we do, or what we’ve accomplished, or what’s on our to-do list, but through who our hearts and souls yearn to be.
And when we emerge from this Shabbat, life will ask things of us. The new week will make demands on us. Our professors, or bosses, or families, will make demands on us. The world at large will make demands on us. May you be blessed with the ability to dig deep and find the reserves you need for whatever liberation, whatever new adventure, whatever challenges lie ahead. Shabbat shalom.
Offered on February 3, 2017. Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.