An extraordinary comment in the Jerusalem Talmud overturns our self-image as “slaves in Egypt” and reminds us that in Egypt, we might have been slave-masters too. It suggests that Passover commemorates not only the time when we became a free people, but also the time when we gave our slaves the gift of freedom.
Learning this part of the Talmud for the first time is shocking. We believe that we were victims, not perpetrators. We were the weak, not the strong. We could not have kept slaves, we were slaves.
Today, although we are a strong people in our own land, our minds are still accustomed to seeing ourselves as victims. We find it hard to listen to the suffering of other victims, to hear their narratives and to see their images of us.
Jewish law commands that slaves are set free after six years’ service and also in any Jubilee year. In the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 3:5), Rav Shmuel (in the name of Rav Yitzhak) relates this commandment to a verse in Exodus (6:13) in which Moses and Aaron are commanded not only to instruct Pharaoh, king of Egypt, but also to instruct the people of Israel to release the Jewish people from slavery. The instruction to Pharaoh is obvious, but what instruction was given to the people of Israel?
Here is Rav Yitzhak’s answer: “What did he instruct them about? About freeing slaves.” The discussion in the Talmud then associates our subsequent exile from the Land of Israel to Babylon, hundreds of years later, to our ancestors’ failure to free their slaves at that time.
Rav Ila comments, “Israel was only ever punished because of not freeing slaves. This is the meaning of the words of Jeremiah who said, “On the day that I brought your ancestors out of Egypt I made an agreement with them that they would let their slaves go free after six years. And your ancestors did not listen to me . . .”
Jeremiah’s diatribe (34:13-14) describes a moment when the Jewish people did free slaves as required by law, but then forced them to return to their previous owners. And, by the end of Jeremiah’s life, the nation had indeed been punished with exile from the Land.
Were we slaves or slave-masters in Egypt? The exchange in the Jerusalem Talmud suggests that we might have been both. Today, this view has almost been forgotten. But the story can still be told. Every year, on Seder night, the Haggada commands us to see ourselves as if we had gone out from Egypt and to tell the story afresh.
At Passover this year, we could teach our children that when we lived in Egypt, in a society where to be born a slave meant to live as a slave for ever and to die a slave, we let our own slaves go after six years. We could teach our children that we merited freedom because we let others go free.
We could tell our children more than that. We legislated against slavery in ancient times. We marched for civil rights in Georgia and Alabama. We stood on trial with Nelson Mandela. These struggles are part of our history. This year at Passover we could retell them all.