The journey from slavery to freedom is one each of us must travel
From the Jewish perspective, all people fall into one of two categories. Either you are a slave, or you are free, and the journey from slavery to freedom is one each of us must travel. Even in the 21st century, when modern societies agree that all human beings deserve the right to self-determination, slavery is still a struggle. To be a slave, teaches Jewish tradition, is to be silenced, to be deprived of voice; to be free is to claim one’s capacity to speak truth without apology.
The ancient Israelites spent generations without voice, suffering for 400 long years as slaves. For all of those years, they did not cry out to God, and God did not save them. Then, miraculously after 400 years, the Jewish people groaned. It was this groan that was first heard by the Divine, that initiated the process of redemption. It was a deep guttural noise, a stirring in the base of the belly that escaped before the mind could stop it.
What gave the ancient Israelites the strength, the courage, to cry out after so many generations of silence? Some say it was the birth of Moses, the redeemer, that caused a cosmic shift— a lightening, such that breath could finally become prayer. Others say it was the unadulterated face of evil, a Pharaoh who tossed babies into the sea, pure darkness that set the light free. But, with the groan, the journey from slavery to freedom could begin.
To be free, the Jewish people would have to find their voice. It was a lesson learned in the desert, the midbar in Hebrew. The Hasidic masters pun this word, reading it instead as “medaber” the land of speech. Moses, the great prophet of the Jewish people, is the embodied symbol for the transformation of speech that must take place. When Moses is first called to his work as prophet, he initially refuses because he is arel sfatayim; literally, he is “of uncircumcised lips.” Probably a euphemism for a lisp, what a powerful physical claim. “My mouth is incomplete,” he proclaims. “It is covered by a barrier, a foreskin of sorts, that must be removed before I can speak freely.” Over the course of his life, Moses does indeed liberate his voice, speaking boldly to the Jewish people and to God.
To speak freely takes the utmost courage. Most of us do not do it. We spend our lives encumbered by saying only “the right things.” Our speech must be polite, social, light. It must conform to social norms. So many of us use our speech to mask our deeper selves—the selves that struggle, that feel pain, disappointment and loss. Listen to the speech of a small child, one who has only just learned to talk but has not yet learned the ways of social speech. Hear their freedom.
I have always loved the Zimbabwean Proverb, “If you can walk, you can dance, if you can talk, you can sing.” According to the Hasidic masters, not only do the ancient Israelites master speech during their time in the desert, they learn to sing. Singing is freedom. Some of us know this, singing freely in the choir, at karaoke and with friends, and others only know the joy of singing with abandon in the car or in the shower. When you let yourself sing, really sing, it is pure joy.
The Jewish people learn this lesson when they face certain death. They are in the desert, slaves running toward freedom. They find the Egyptian army at their heel, a wall of water in front of them. They cry out to Moses and to God, and their prayers are answered; the Sea splits before them, the Promised Land on just the other side. It is here, filled with faith, that the people once silenced by slavery sing out. “Who is like You oh God?!” they cry, tasting freedom at last.
To sing is to transcend the ego. It is to let your voice pour forth, unencumbered by fear. In sharing your song, you contribute to the song of the world. A redeemed world then, as imagined by the Torah, is one in which every person, every aspect of creation, is free to sing out. In so doing, the voices of the many become the voice of the One. Differences melt away. All becomes one. This is redemption. This is freedom.
As the poet Naomi Shemer sings, inspired by the words of the great mystic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:
Know that each and every shepherd has his own melody.Know that each and every grass has its own song.And from the song of the grasses the tune of the shepherd is made…And from the song of the grasses the heart is filled and yearns.
Sing your song. You are the only one who knows the tune.