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Resisting Enslavement

In both Jewish and Christian understandings, true freedom comes through living life in sync with the desires and designs of God for creation. What does it mean to be holy as God is holy; to live our earthly lives in partnership with the divine? Let's explore, ever so briefly, some interpretative voices from Jewish tradition, with the help of Nehama Leibowitz, a leading Torah teacher of 20th-century Israel.

This week's Torah portion, Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30, depicts Israel establishing a code of conduct that makes it ‘different’ in belief and custom to the surrounding cultures. Of particular interest in this discussion are the verses 18:1-5.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the Land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:1-5)

These verses mark a change in style; not just rhythmically, but in the sense that Moses speaks very directly in the Lord’s name, “I am the Lord,” as distinct from the pattern in previous chapters, “This is what the Lord has said.”

“I am the Lord your God.” This phrase is repeated (18:2,4). Rashi [1] draws a connection between this and the verses that open the Ten Commandments where God also says, “I am the Lord your God.” Says Rashi, the Lord is saying: Know who is speaking to you! It is I the Lord your God! At Mt Sinai you accepted my sovereignty, now accept my rules of conduct.

According to Be’er Yitzhak, “I am the Lord your God” recalls the ‘powerful king’ whose closeness to His people calls for complete obedience. To Meshekh Hokhmah the address is meant for each individual for personal benefit. God who created us knows our bodies and desires, and therefore when we follow God’s rules we live in harmony with the way we were designed; we find body-spirit harmony. These are two complementary views, one emphasising God as Creator, the other ourselves as created.[2]

Why does the text specifically warn against Egyptian and Canaanite customs? Surely their practices were no worse than other pagan nations. Why single them out?

Some traditional opinions are forthright in saying that in fact the conduct of these nations in ancient times was exceptionally corrupt. Such a view is better understood if we recall that, in the biblical narrative, Egypt and Canaan are like ‘book-ends’ to the Israelites’ desert passage. When enslaved in Egypt, they had witnessed a sophisticated society. The people they would meet upon arriving at the land of Canaan were likewise used to ‘fine cities,’ ‘houses filled with all sorts of goods,’ ‘vineyards and olive groves’ (Deut. 6:10-11). After years of wandering, one can imagine the Israelites being attracted to this culture. Sums up Leibowitz, “As we know, material progress does not necessarily spell moral advancement. Hence the Torah warns us, at the beginning of the chapter on forbidden relations, not to be dazzled by the external glitter of technological progress and lose sight of moral standards.”[3]

After all, notes Be’er Yitzhak, if you imitate the Egyptians what was the point of God liberating you from Egypt?


In your own life, have you ever experienced the dilemma of the Israelites, as they left one form of slavery only to be tempted by another?

1. Rashi: revered medieval Torah scholar.

2. Be’er Yitzhak and Meshekh Hokhmah: 19th century commentators, cited by Leibowitz, 244.

3. Leibowitz, 245. Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) was a leading teacher of Torah in 20th-century Israel.

Bibliography: Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, Vol.1 (New York, 1996); Rashi: Commentary on the Torah, Vol. 3 (New York: Mesorah, 1999); Scripture: NRSV.

© Teresa Pirola, 2013. Reproduction for non-commercial purposes is permitted with acknowledgement of website.

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