Freedom can be a very dangerous thing.
When reading the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we are confronted with a strange phenomenon: the mashchit (destroyer). After the Jews were told to mark their doorposts with the blood of the korban pesach (Paschal lamb), they were informed that God would pass over their doors “and He will not allow the destroyer (ha-mashchit) to enter your homes and attack you.”(1) Later, at midnight, Moshe would call them to leave their homes after they had had a family meal, and they would subsequently leave Egypt. The commentators struggle with the term “the destroyer.” Who or what was this? God? A plague? Some other power?
One of the most remarkable explanations(2) is that the destroyer was freedom itself. Often in history, national liberations were followed by long periods of chaos and violence. Many bloody and ruthless insurrections erupted by slaves eager to settle a score with their cruel masters. The brutish drive for vengeance, for gratification of the satanic impulses within man, was often irresistible. At the time of the French revolution, many of those who were liberated initiated mass killings. The same is true of the upheavals after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Victims of harsh slavery tend to throw off the shackles of moral behavior and become criminals themselves, taking their revenge even on innocent bystanders. The turmoil that often follows the experience of sudden freedom is too much for people to handle.
When we look at the story of the Exodus, we are struck by the fact that an upheaval of revenge was completely absent. No Egyptian babies were snatched from the embrace of their mothers and thrown into the Nile, as had been done to the Jewish male babies just a short time before. Not one Jew beat his taskmaster who had mercilessly tortured him only a few days earlier. Not one Egyptian was hurt nor was any Egyptian house destroyed or vandalized by the newly freed Israelites.
At that crucial hour, when the Jews had the motivation, opportunity and ability to take revenge for 210 years of exceedingly cruel treatment, they chose to be restrained and quiet. Instead of rioting in the streets of Goshen, they remained in their homes, ate a festive meal—which included the korban pesach—sang praises to God, and waited until they were told to leave. Would anyone have blamed them for assaulting some of the taskmasters who had thrown their babies in the Nile? Yet, not one Jew raised a hand against his enemy. Once it was certain that they would be free at any moment, and that there was no longer a need to defend themselves, revenge would be meaningless.
This is one of the greatest lessons that Judaism has taught the world. Freedom should be experienced in a prudent manner, far removed from chaos, bloodshed and revenge.
Freedom can be a very dangerous commodity if one does not think it through, control it, and apply it carefully. It is therefore quite understandable that Pesach—which celebrates freedom, powerfully symbolized through the Seder night rituals—has a large number of restrictions, to the extent that even a crumb of bread is forbidden. In our chaotic world, this is a most important lesson.
Today, when so much freedom has been given to man, most people do not know what they are free from. We have confused the “free” with the “free and easy.”
“He only earns his freedom and existence,” says Goethe, “who daily conquers them anew.”(3)
When we hear calls for revenge or retribution in and outside Israel, the lesson of the mashchit is of utmost importance.
(1) Shemot 12:23.
(2) Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind (Jerusalem: Genesis Jerusalem Press, 1991) pp. 137-142.
3. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Act V, Scene 6.
Questions to Ponder from the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank
1. Rabbi Cardozo suggests that the mashchit, the destroyer, is freedom itself.
What else might the mashchit be? From what other force might the Israelites need protection?
2. Had you been there that night, do you think you would have left as calmly and politely as our ancestors apparently did? Have there been times in your life when revenge was the preferred option? When have you felt vengeful? Does not acting on it feel good or bad?
3. Rabbi Cardozo asserts that many people today do not know what they are free from. Do you know? Do you feel free? Might there be advantages to not knowing the hardships of lacking freedom?
4. While Goethe’s character tells us “He only earns his freedom and existence, who daily conquers them anew,” Karl Marx tells the workers that if united, they have nothing to lose but their chains. How might these differing ideas about status, humanity and freedom relate to Rabbi Cardozo’s assertion that “freedom can be a very dangerous commodity”?
5. What do you think freedom is, and would you like it?