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Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Are you Jewish by accident of birth?

Daf Yomi Yevamos 67

Why are you Jewish?  Was it just an accident of birth?  If you’d been born to Christian or Muslim parents would you be Christian or Muslim today?  If that’s the entire basis of your religious practice, why bother?

Rabbi Judah Halevi writes in the Kuzari that the reason to do Judaism runs much deeper than any other religion.   Whereas most other religions begin with a man who speaks to G-d and then spreads the word to anyone who will listen, Judaism makes the audacious claim that G-d revealed Himself to an entire nation of millions of people.  We all witnessed the salvation from Egypt; we all witnessed the splitting of the Red Sea.

How do we know that our ancestors were all there?  Each year we sit around the table on Passover and recount the story of the Exodus.   I tell my children the story because my parents told me and their parents told them.  Incredibly, every Jewish table across the globe has been recounting the exact same story for thousands of years! 

Now imagine trying to convince a group of people to start telling a story to their children that never happened.  We Jews don’t agree on anything.  There’s no way on earth that anybody could have convinced us to start lying to our kids unless it actually happened.  That’s why the Passover seder is so powerful – it forms the basis of the veracity of Judaism.

The problem, however, is that most people forget the punch line.

Rava taught: Consecration, leavening, and freedom release from subjugation.

Rashi explains: If a creditor has a lien against property of the debtor to guarantee repayment of his loan, sometimes that property may be released due to a transformation of the property’s status.  If an item that had a lien on it was consecrated to the Temple, then it is released from the lien.  Similarly, if bread had a lien on it and then Pesach arrived causing the bread to become chametz, it would automatically become forbidden to its owner and therefore the lien is meaningless.

And if the debtor had a servant that he had placed a lien upon and then subsequently freed him, the lien becomes ineffective.  Previously, as a slave, this man had the status of property and a lien could be placed upon him.   Now he is a free man and no longer property, and so the lien is no longer in effect.

When a gentile servant is emancipated, the Torah dictates that he becomes a regular Jew, obligated in the 613 commandments.  Is he really free?  He has been ‘released from subjugation’ of his earthly master, but now he has much greater responsibility.   Rava’s teaching that ‘freedom releases from subjugation’ is not a tautology – he is not stating the obvious.  He means that this person has been freed from the subjugation of a human being and given over to a higher calling.

On Passover, we celebrate our freedom from servitude to Pharaoh.  But being free doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want.  Subjugation to one master always gives way to a higher form of subjugation.   You could quit working for minimum wage at Walmart to start your own business, but now you are subjugated to the needs and wants of your customers. 

And just like the gentile servant who, upon emancipation, becomes subjugated to Heaven, we too were freed from servitude to Pharaoh to become servants of the Almighty.  He took us out of Egypt and brought us to Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah.  Sadly, most people sit at their Passover seders and forget that punch line – despite its prominence in everyone’s favourite song, Dayenu!  G-d redeemed us from Egypt so that we would have the opportunity to serve Him alone.

In Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi teaches that the only true free man is one who occupies himself in Torah.   When you assume the yoke of Torah and become a servant of Heaven, only then can you experience true freedom.   Otherwise, you are bound by the travails of this earthly life.  When you place yourself in the Hand of the Almighty, you free yourself from the shackles of life’s problems.  You realize that everything that happens is for a reason and that G-d is guiding every step of your life.  Now that is true freedom!

So, it’s not a tautology that freedom releases a person from servitude.  Many people will drift through life freeing themselves from one form of subjugation and then locking themselves up in another cell.  Only once you hand yourself over to the service of the Almighty will you experience true, unbounded freedom.  May you merit true freedom on earth!