Rabbi Jamie will talk about love. The word friend comes from a Sanskrit root meaning free. Next week I will show how they mesh. In the meantime, I want to talk about slavery.
We have, as a people, always been uncomfortable with the idea of slavery. Yes, Jews had slaves in the old BCs and the Torah legislates the ifs and buts of slavery but takes its existence for granted. Jews in the American south kept slaves, I don’t see job lots of them, but there were some. If the Torah takes slavery as a given, it hedges the practice around with restrictions modeled on our discomfort.
There is no historical proof that we as a people were ever slaves. The great Egyptian and Babylonian monuments were engineered and built by people in specialized castes, living in hereditary villages. What is the evidence for our discomfort with slavery is our liturgy and our ceremonies. No religion that I know of celebrates freedom as much as we do. Pesach tells us to loll in our chairs. Slaves do not loll. The Four Questions do more than instruct children: slaves don’t ask questions. At Shabbos, we are asked to act like kings and queens who welcome a Sabbath Queen on equal footing. We are sitting at ease; we are not slaves. Maybe we need to access our distant past as pastoral nomads to understand our concern with freedom. Slaves haven o purpose in nomadic life, except in the way that we humans were slaves to our animals. That’s the only slavery we feel comfortable with.
But it’s too easy to put ourselves on the right side of the argument. Before I dislocate my shoulder patting myself on the back, I should remember how hard life was before we got our new slaves: electric slaves, mechanical slaves, electronic slaves, and now, computer slaves – I call mine Hershel. These slaves don’t demand rights, lie, steal, or get drunk, and I never have to set them free.
So, talking about slaves, there’s talking about freedom. Long before that word in our liturgy meant freedom of belief and action, it meant not being a slave. By the way, in a version written and spoken before that, the blessing said “not an ignoramus,” and Rabbi Acha Bar Jacob said, “What arrogance!” and had it changed. I assume he felt that a lot of us couldn’t make the cut.
Some of us who follow the weekly Parshiot may dread the rising of the Book of Leviticus in our liturgical year. I have dragged through that sometimes narcotic book that left me feeling as dried out and desiccated as the desert through which the Jews were Schlepping. Leviticus is a handbook for priests and included an edition of the House Beautiful section for the construction of the sanctuary cubit by cubit. But, all of a sudden, in T’rumah, there are the words D’vanecha Libo, and my smile breaks. These gifts to the sanctuary shall be given in the heart’s free will, or in the free will of your heart. Slaves cannot build and furnish the sanctuary. They can’t hire carpenters, weavers, stone workers, or fashioners of gold and precious gems and sit out in indifference. Freedom means willingness, love of the work.
Of course that sanctuary was can’t be made in the desert. The instructions are a vision of the future. The plans we make and the dreams we dream end up dreaming us into selves we are yet, but will be, or at least what we hope we grow into. Our version of God says that God doesn’t demand, but requests. The request is for work, not slavery. The nomads we used to be invented man-woman bonding, monotheism, Shabbat, and maybe the idea of freedom too. Gut Yontif.