Labor of Love
This week’s torah episode is called ‘BO’, also known as ‘Showdown in Egypt’. ‘Bo’ means ‘Enter’ – alluding to the divine command for Moses to enter the presence and the mindset of his oppressor – in order to release the enslaved Hebrews and let them go free. In three chapters we get a blow by blow of the final stages of the Exodus – the last three of the ten attacks on Egypt, climaxing with the slaughter of the firstborn and the king’s final defeat. Somewhere between midnight and dawn, lit by the full moon of spring, over a million Hebrew slaves flee Egypt, matzos in hand, ending 430 years of residence.
And then, when it’s all over, the Passover for the future is instructed – the memory of that fateful night, different from all others, engraved on the collective mind. One word stands out – a Hebrew word that is translated in various ways that put together tell the whole story, mysteriously symbolizing both the agony and the redemption – the bitter and the sweet.
Exodus 12:16 – And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? (King James Bible)
The Hebrew word for ‘service’ is ‘avodah’ – appearing continuously in the Exodus saga, translated as ‘labor’, ‘practice’, ‘rite’, ‘worship’, ‘bondage’, ‘rite’ or ‘ceremony’.
Depending on the context this word either refers to the historical forced labor in the Egyptian brick factories OR to the future ritual commemoration of the Passover Freedom Festival: the Seder. Either way – it’s the same word, and for those of us who have sat through one of those unbelievably long and boring Seders – the slavery motif is not a big surprise. The word ‘Avodah’ became the code word for the worship rites at the Jerusalem Temple, and later for the sequence of prayers conducted in synagogues. The word ‘service’ is still in fairly current usage, describing what has also become, for many of us, a bit more of a laborious oppression than excited celebration.
Avodah is a key concept in Jewish vocabulary. Perhaps, because if focuses on the very basic set of human acts that requires discipline and perseverance, order and obedience. We think of this in terms of worship – but also in terms of industry. The word ‘work’ – signifying what for many is a vocation of obligation and for many others a labor of love, is very loaded with different meanings – and in modern Hebrew – Avoda still means ‘job’.
The many faces of this word remind us of one more bizarre twist on this convoluted concept. ‘Arbeit Macht Frei ‘or ‘Labor Liberates’ is a familiar, sinister quote, used by the Nazis to promote slave labor as ‘effective’ or ‘humane’ procedure. The expression first appears in 1872, when German author Lorenz Diefenbac, a nationalist, used it as the title of his book. In 1928 the Weimar Government used it as a slogan promoting large-scale public works campaign to end unemployment. By 1933 it has become a Nazi favorite, famously decorating the thresholds of many death camps.
As we repeat the Exodus tale this week, ancient and recent history echo our personal yearnings for a life free of all forms of oppression.
So, when the time comes and your child (or student) asks you – WHY are we doing this Passover thing? What will you answer?
And, in our daily journeys from the narrow places, when tasks and duties become oppressions, no matter what their goal and purpose – will we remember the labor of love?