“’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.
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 of 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 says to Quell the 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 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,
serves primarily 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, s/he becomes bound
to that society’s laws. There is virtually nowhere on earth one could go where s/
he would not be subject 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 to 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 the Jewish tradition does not
think so. 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 be 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
The question Passover offers is not, “Are you free?” Rather, it is “Who or what do
you serve?” How will you answer the question this year?