Bo: Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
“From Pharaoh’s Slaves to God’s Slaves”
There is a peculiar word in Hebrew that is used interchangeably in this parashah: Avad. At the beginning of the parashah we read: “The Eternal said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh! For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his Avadim in order that I may display my Signs among them” (Ex. 10:1). In this context, the word Avad (plural Avadim) is translated as “servants” or “courtiers.” But later on, we find this same word understood very differently: “Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of Avadim” (Ex.13:3). Here the word is rendered as “bondage” or “slavery.” In yet another place, where we are given the reason why Pharaoh has to free the Israelites from slavery, we see the root of that same word used to express something different still: “Thus says the Eternal, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to be humbled in My Presence? Let My people go that they may Av’duni (worship Me)” (Ex. 10:3).
To me, there is an intimate connection between the three verses when one reads the text beyond its literal meaning. When I come to Torah, I start with the assumption that I am all the characters of the story. I am the Hebrew slaves and the Pharaoh enslaver, I am Moses and I am God. This text, therefore, speaks to me of an inner experience of enslavement, of my stuckness in my own Egypt/Mitzrayim—from the Hebrew root meaning “narrowness.” But, most importantly, this story speaks to me of the possibility of liberation from such a place of enslavement to the exiguous worldview of my own limited belief system. Connecting our first two verses, we read the word Avadim as “slaves” in both cases, and understand the first verse to teach us that our enslavement, our stuckness, stems from our own hardened hearts. Not only do we live in a confining self-constructed Egypt, we have hardened our hearts to the exclusive defense of this narrow place, in the never-abating fear that it might be attacked or upended.
But the Divine within continuously works to free us from this inner bondage. On good days we are able to hear and heed the voice of our inner Moses telling us to “Let Go!” and open our hearts. On not-so-good days we are met with “plagues”—“in order that I may display my Signs among them”—ultimately designed to help us realize that this closed-heartedness and constricted way of being is just not tenable. The Divine within is calling us to break free from our enslavement to the fearful ego, so that we may Av’duni/ “become slaves to Him,” as our third verse seems to indicate. No longer refusing to see the Divine Presence in every moment—i.e., no longer rejecting the inner knowledge of the One Being within us, manifesting as us, as everything and everyone—automatically silences the ego and leaves us in a state of deep humility and awe. We do not become enslaved to a God “out there” dictating a divine will over ours. Rather, we become enslaved or surrendered to the God “in here,” leading a life that embodies the divine attributes of the most gentle, accepting, and understanding ways of being. This kind of “slavery” expresses our highest value: doing justice, practicing love and compassion, and walking humbly with God along our unique path.