Happiness in slavery: the true meaning of Passover
Passover is not about freedom, but about serving the most worthy of masters.
“’For the Children of Israel are servants for me.’ They are my servants, and not servants of servants.” – Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 10a
Let me start with the bombshell: Passover is not about freedom. I know, I know. Your Hebrew School teacher always told you Passover was about freedom. And you have a Haggadah titled “The Feast of Freedom”. So this is a hard pill to swallow.
But consider this: The Hebrew word for freedom, herut, is never mentioned in the Torah. And regardless of what the song would have you believe, God never tells Moses to go down to Pharaoh and say, “Let My people go.” In the Bible, that phrase is always followed by “and serve Me.”
It turns out that Passover is not about freedom, but ge’ulah, redemption. Redemption is about more than removal from being under the authority of an undesirable master. Instead, “redemption” implies exchange, as in trading one thing in for another, or regaining ownership of something through a transaction. When God redeemed the Israelites, God did more than free them from Pharaoh. That was a necessary step, but not the final step. After freedom was the ultimate goal: God replacing Pharaoh as the people’s new master.
The redemption in the Passover story underscores the reality that none of us is ever truly free. As Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails once put it, “the slave thinks he is released from bondage only to find a stronger set of chains.”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, poignantly illustrates this idea. The film (which in my view was snubbed by the Oscars and was the year’s best) centers on Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell, a wild animal of a man; and his relationship with Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic leader of a cult called “The Cause.”
Late in the film, Dodd tells Quell these revealing words: “If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you'd be the first person in the history of the world.”
There is no such thing, according to “The Master”, as complete freedom. We are inherently subservient; everyone serves some master. Indeed, while one is initially led to believe that the “master” in the film’s title refers to Dodd, it becomes apparent that both are, in a certain sense, each other’s master, and, simultaneously, neither one’s master. Quell becomes Dodd’s acolyte because he hopes Dodd’s teachings can free him from his demons. But he ends up vacillating between the needs of his mentor and being possessed by his own tormented past and carnal urges. Dodd, for his part, primarily serves his own hunger for fame and power. He needs Quell to prove The Cause’s effectiveness in order to secure status for himself. Paradoxically, he also needs Quell to be an expression of his own inner animalism.
That all of us unavoidably serve some master is an uncomfortable idea for us. Enlightenment philosopher John Locke believed that human beings are naturally “free from any Superior Power on Earth.” This philosophy inspired America’s Founders, and many of us are the heirs of that legacy.
But Locke and the Founders were wrong. We are all born to serve some master. Consider, for example, that if one lives in a society, any society, she or he becomes bound to that society’s laws. There is virtually nowhere on earth one could go where she or he would not be subjected to another’s rule. Flee to a life of total freedom from others in the wilderness, and you will encounter any number of different masters: the insatiable demands of your stomach, the tyranny of your need for protection, the despotism of your own loneliness. In some sense, the various masters present in that kind of “freedom” are worse than those that exist in civilization.
The same is true in a psychological sense. If we were honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge that we all serve internal masters. Perhaps our actions are governed by a need to feel validated. Perhaps we are dictated by our desire for power. Perhaps we are possessed by our drive to live in comfort. Perhaps we are dependent on the numbing impact of chemicals.
Now, this could be a depressing reality to face. But Jewish tradition does not view it as such. Indeed, on Passover, we celebrate it. We believe that, given the fact that we all serve some master, a commitment to serve the Holy One is the most exalting, liberating, and fulfilling possible option. Being God’s servant means being committed to a life of justice, love, and righteousness. Serving God means pursuing a life of goodness, purpose, meaning, and depth. Living under the yoke of God’s rule opens up the possibility of comfort, security, fearlessness, and more profound joy.
And it works for agnostics and atheists, too: simply commit yourself to being guided by the values that, for those who believe in God, God represents. But there is one catch: to truly serve God (or godliness), you have to reject all other masters, adhering to what Martin Luther King called “God’s law” over the demands of any other authority.
The question Passover offers is not, “Are you free?” Rather, it is “Who or what do you serve?” How will you answer that question this year?
Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a Clal - Rabbis Without Borders fellow. You can follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rabbiknopf