Avraham Burg

Slaves of Time

By Avraham Burg

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Bo – Go In Exodus 10:1–13:16

This week the story of the Exodus reaches its climax. The last plagues come down on Pharaoh and his house. The gates of Egypt are thrown open wide and “my people go.” Thus the Middle Eastern drama of days gone by, whose echoes still spark the imaginations and shape the values of the three great monotheistic faiths. Such myths often fired the imagination of the ancient world, and a few have survived to our time. For example, the Roman gladiator Spartacus led a slave revolt against the Roman republic in 73 BCE. Leading an army of gladiators and runaway slaves, he fought off the trained legions of Rome for nearly three years in what historians call the Third Servile War, before being defeated. His story happened in the far distant past, but it continues to resonate. Numerous modern revolutionary movements drew their inspiration from Spartacus, including the most famous: the Spartacus League, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht during the Weimar Republic in Germany. Fictional versions of his story continue to grow in number. Arthur Koestler’s first novel, The Gladiators, published in 1939, was based on the Spartacus story.

Howard Fast wrote a novel titled Spartacus in 1951 that was made into an Academy Award-winning movie in 1960, starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Stanley Kubrick. In Fast’s telling, Spartacus was a sort of ancient communist fighting the Roman establishment to liberate the slaves. Perhaps not coincidentally, the screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, and his on-screen credit in Spartacus is said to have ended the Hollywood blacklist. The Kubrick film was re-released in 1967 and again in 1991. Fast’s novel was adapted again in 2004 as a made-for-television movie. Yet another version was launched in 2010 as a Starz Network cable television series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand; the series is entering its third season at this writing, and is focused more on action and sex than politics.

Aram Khachaturian composed a ballet on Spartacus in 1954, considered one of his greatest works, and later adapted the music into a series of orchestral suites that continue to be popular as theme music on British television. The Soviet Union sponsored its own international sports competition, the Spartakiad, for decades until the collapse of Communism. Spartak is still the name of Moscow’s most successful football and hockey clubs. Finally, Spartacus is also the name of the newsletter of the Communist youth league of Israel. Perhaps that’s why Moshe, or Moses, is the most popular name in Israel.

What is it about the never-ending battle between slave and slave-master that so fascinates us? It might be the undying human hope to rise above our condition and better our lives. We seem to tell ourselves that if an enslaved people can defeat a brutal despot like Pharaoh, then maybe I can do something about my abusive boss or my violent husband. Because human society will always be plagued by cruelty, mean-spiritedness and oppression, the spirit of freedom will never cease pulsing within us.

The stories that open the Book of Exodus recount a clash of civilizations. It is not merely a confrontation between Hebrew society and its Egyptian sister-society, but a clash between two basic visions of the human spirit: oppression versus freedom. There will always be people who want to dominate others. There will always be people who want to be dominated by others, who will willingly bow their heads in submission before the peremptory power of their overlords. Like that solitary slave who says: “‘I love my master…; I will not go out free….’ Then his master shall bring him…to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him forever” (Exod. 21:5–6). So it is with people and nations whose souls have been beaten down and conquered. Hebrew civilization rose against them like a storm, fixing its sights on the eternal struggle of free people against oppressors.

Where is the center of the struggle? What is its focus?

The point where slave and master collide, the axis along which worker and boss confront each other, is time. Every struggle for freedom is a struggle to seize the mastery of time. The oppressor says: I will! I will determine when and how hard to work. The freedom fighter says: when my time is under my control, I will be the master of my fate. Fate and time are one and the same. We often speak of being “master of one’s fate” or “a slave to the clock,” rarely noticing that they are two sides of the same coin. Because time is the point where slavery and redemption collide, it can help us shed light on Rashi’s first and most famous biblical exegesis, from the very beginning of Genesis: “‘In the Beginning’ – Rabbi Yitzhak taught that the Torah need not have begun anywhere but at ‘This month will be for you’” (Rashi on Gen. 1:1). According to this otherwise unknown Rabbi Yitzhak (who might be Rashi’s father or teacher), the true beginning of the Torah and of Jewish culture is not at the mythic story of creation but at one cardinal moment in the life of Jewish people described in this week’s portion, the moment of departure from Egypt, about which God says to Moses, “And the Lord spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: ‘This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you’” (Exod. 12:1–2). Why is this commandment so important? Why, for that matter, does God present himself in the Ten Commandments as the “God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exod. 20:2), and not as the God of Genesis, Creator of heaven and earth?

Because the essence of the Torah, the covenant between God and his people, is freedom and the mastery of time. The Exodus is not a mere slave rebellion, an achievement of personal liberty for each of the rebels to the point of anarchy, but an act of taking responsibility for time. When God issues a command that “this month will be for you,” he is saying: you are masters of time, and not its slaves. When you were slaves, anyone could tell you when to get up, when to go to work and when you could rest, if at all. Your time was not your own. Now the responsibility is back in your hands. You fix time for yourselves. And not just the clock, but the calendar.

Here is how Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, a fascinating sixteenth-century Italian scholar, explains the verse: “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months. From now on the months will be yours to do with as you wish. In the time of slavery the days were not yours but were for the service of others and their will. Therefore, ‘it shall be the first month of the year to you,’ because this was the beginning of your choosing reality” (Sforno on Exod. 12:2). “Choosing reality” is an ancient Hebrew expression that simply means freedom of choice. And this is the sum of Jewish civilization: a culture of freedom of choice; a special calendar and a Sabbath at the end of the week that are the expressions of Jewish freedom, the freedom of a free people in time.

Before leaving this theme a cautionary note is in order. The Israel and Egypt of the Exodus are not necessarily nations as defined by demography or genetics. Above all they are symbols. In different circumstances the roles can just as easily be reversed, whether by inattention or malice. The oppressed can become the oppressor, and a past history of victimhood will be no excuse. Even Israel can become an Egyptian taskmaster. The classic Israeli poet Natan Alterman summarized the plagues in this manner in his poem “On the Road to No-Amon [the Egyptian city better known as Thebes],” the opening of his astonishing epic, Songs of the Plagues of Egypt, written as the first reports of the Nazi genocide were emerging and published in 1944:

No-Amon, with your axes of iron Your gates, uprooted by night They will come, plagues of Egypt, upon you To mete out to you justice by night. No-Amon, then it rose to the moon The first cry, with no one to hear, And the strong man who ran to the gateway Collapsed, while still running, from fear. Shrouded in cries, the king’s city Tossed forth in a wondrous hurl. From chambers of grandeur to salt grains From crown down to rags cast aswirl.

And your night with its pride, now forgotten And time like a vault cracked asunder And your dust carried off in the wind with the dust Of great cities the sands have swept under.

Every generation has its Egypt, its great cities of despots who met their ends in dust carried off in the wind. And over against the symbolic No-Amon there always stands the spirit of freedom – the plagues of Egypt against the Exodus from Egypt. So it was with the first great human act of redemption and so it was in the vision of Maimonides, who saw the final redemption in the end of days this way: “There is no difference between this world and the messianic era except the oppression of kingdoms” (Maimonides, “The Laws of Kings,” 12:2). That is, in the longed-for days to come the world will behave just as it does now. The sun will rise in the morning and winter will be cold. The only difference will be that nations will not oppress one another, peoples will not seek domination and no one will be a slave or prisoner of his neighbor. In those future messianic days there will be no more Egyptianism. The language of human values will be freedom of choice, time, liberty and self-determination. Perhaps that is why we end the blessings of the Jewish festival holidays with the phrase, “who sanctifies Israel and the seasons of time,” as if to remind ourselves that the passage of holiday seasons embodies our command over time, and command of time is the essence of freedom.


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