What slaves know best

by | Jan 22, 2016 | Torah Thought

How do Jews fit into God’s plan to civilize the world?

If we were chauvinistic, the question would not even arise in our minds. But since we are not, the question “Why did God give the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel, of all people?” gains its force.

The Bible itself gives a hint at the answer. In Exodus 19, the scene describing the people’s encounter with the Word of God at Mt. Sinai, the Bible reports an astounding promise made by God: If the people will obey God’s commandments, then they “shall be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

To understand this phrase properly, we should keep in mind two salient facts: 1) the words were spoken to recently- freed slaves, and 2) the society from which they had just escaped was Egypt.

Slaves, better than others, understand the bitterness of servitude and the sweetness of freedom, the injustice of unmerited hierarchies, the propensity of the powerful to oppress the weak. Slaves have not just thought about cruelty in the abstract; they have tasted it in the salt and sand clogging their mouths as they toiled in the brick pits, and felt it in the lacerations of the lash across their backs. God is telling recently freed slaves, people still bearing their scars, that there is a radically better way to fashion society, and that the way to achieve it is to follow God’s commandments. Having experienced the worst, they are ready to hope for the best.

How does “the kingdom of priests” relate to this? Here, we should recall what it meant to be a priest in ancient Egypt. The Joseph story in Genesis narrated that all of the Egyptians, except the priests, lost their freedom during the seven years of famine. Every Egyptian, except for priests, was in some measure not free, and the Israelites were therefore slaves to slaves. (According to the rabbinic commentary, that is why the First of the Ten Commandments says “I am the LORD your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slaves—not the house of “slavery,” as you would expect, but the house of slaves, because the Egyptians themselves were slaves to Pharaoh, and you were slaves to them.) The priests remained free during the famine years because they received corporate welfare from Pharaoh, and got their daily grain allotment without having to sell their animals, their land, and ultimately their free status.

Therefore, God is promising the Israelites that, by keeping God’s laws, they would achieve a society where everyone was free—something that had not happened within living memory. Nor has it happened yet, in our troubled times. Dictatorship and repression is still the norm in much of the world.

To this day, the promise of the Sinai Covenant has been only partially realized. That’s how revolutionary it was and remains.

As slaves, the Children of Israel knew the limitations of trusting in power politics, and were ready to trust in God. That’s our importance in the spiritual history of the human family.

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel