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?
Dear Rabbi Cardozo,
You have demonstrated again why I so value your thoughts and eagerly look forward reading your words of wisdom.
This is such a wonderful insight into the psyche of We, the Jewish people. Rather then take revenge as you say, and rightfully so, as other nations would have done, we left. It was Hashem who took revenge.
So it appears till today that we value our Freedom and have no need to wreak havoc on those who oppress us.
Is it that Nekama is not rooted into our Neshama? And because we are Baalei
Rachmaniyut we choose the higher path. My father used to say when someone did an injustice to him, “zol mein’s ibergein”.
What a concept. Who goes by that today?
Thank you again. I so look forward to your philosophical insights.
Illana Melzer says
Perhaps the jews could afford not to take revenge because G-d had exacted revenge on their behalf, with the plagues and the final blow of killing the first born. They could eat a celebratory meal because of this.
Diane Langleben says
The most recent example I can think of is that shown by South Africans when Mandela came to power.
Chanan Tzionov says
First off, I am a very very big fan…
However, I’m not quite sure I understand this weeks dvar Torah for the following reasons:
To say that the “mashchit” is actually the nature of freedom itself, and that is what passed over the houses of the Benei Yisrael, doesn’t seem to fit in context with the rest of the verses. After all, it doesn’t really make sense to say that the danger that “freedom” brought, passed over the Jews’ home – but entered the houses of Egypt and killed them. The Egyptians were never enslaved or freed like the Jews, and as such were not tempted in the manner that the Jews were. As such, to say that “the nature of freedom and its associated dangers” passed over the Jews, but is what killed the Egyptians doesn’t make logical sense. What’s more is that we don’t hear of any Egyptians running around and killing their masters (whomever they might be)? If the “danger of freedom” had indeed entered their homes and led to their demise/death, wouldn’t the Torah have seen fit to say so?
To be sure, the concept that Freedom can be inherently dangerous is utter brilliance. What’s more, to point out that the Jews specifically did NOT act out against their former masters is also genius. But I do not see at all how those points can be extrapolated from the verses quoted, and still make logical/contextual sense with the surrounding verses when this idea is plugged back into the pesukim.
The points brought out are beautiful, but I do not believe they may be brought out from these specific verses. A beautiful idea that isn’t able to fit in contextually with the rest of Torah may sound nice – but if it doesn’t fit contextually, I humbly suggest cannot be considered Torah.
Unless, of course, I am failing to see how how it does fit contextually?
Thank you so much!
– Chanan Tzionov
Religious orthodoxy (and the variant religious permutations) maintain that there is comfort in believing that we can access God. Perhaps, free ourselves of the vagaries of human temperament, secular philosophy and prejudice. The legal system maintains that courts are the founts of justice. Within courts’ hallowed halls civil disputes are equitably resolved; the criminally guilty are so adjudged and punished appropriately; the innocent vindicated; wrongs ultimately righted, and justice ultimately decreed. Intimacy plays on notions of love and connection that surpasses the ordinary and mundane.
Or so goes these theories. Whether in the hallowed halls of religious institutions or that of the Courts, or in relationships (it goes without saying and beyond peradventure that politics is a cesspool), religion like the courts and relationships are usually at best, justified by the comfort seemingly brought to us, and at worst, an outright travesty.
Like the old adage that a broken watch is accurate twice a day, religion, court decisions, and relationships are widely perceived as getting it “right”, thus buoying faith by inculcating a visceral existential in the integrity of perfidiousness in the round. If only clients were afforded their “day in court,” or one before their God or a self actualization self, and in their relationships they were imbued with intimacy; enlightened awareness would reign, lies would be exposed, deception laid bare, wrongs would be righted, truth would reign supreme, salvation would be eternal, and a positive and energetic world would ultimately prevail. This outcome is buffeted by and finite resources of time and money and competing versions on these shifting variables that ultimately balances, as if on a fulcrum, a landing on one’s feet on one or the other of the parties’ side with resulting consequences. Depending on one’s given circumstances, it is as if intimacy, getting one’s “day in court,” or getting before the almighty or within one’s transcendent self is the actualization of a reality within our grasp. No doubt these notions are hindered by financial and pragmatic considerations, as well as legal and religious substantive and procedural hurdles, as with relationships and intimacy, turning the very premise that these institutions provide the answers on its head. And, this is but the start. The ever staunch proponents of the fanciful conceptions of religion, the judicial system, and relationships take a blind eye to what passes in the real, and engage in a sophistry that recognizes Houses of Worship, the Courts, relationships and intimacy as existential ratchets, that do not diminish their fanciful purposes, only our own and ourselves.