As slaves, we experienced three primary forms of oppression: gerut (alienation), avdut (servitude) and innui (affliction), [Genesis 15:14]. Our suffering naturally inspires us to acts of social justice in which we attempt to alleviate others’ physical oppression and deprivation. However, we can perceive and interpret our suffering spiritually as well.
In modernity, we experience deep social and religious alienation (gerut), significant physical and spiritual burnout from attempting to maintain our minority heritage in a historically Christian, and increasingly secularized, society (avdut) and a loss of identity and freedom from having to survive in a rat race, cutthroat society (innui).
The great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik argued that there are two basic characteristics that we experience as slaves today: anonymity and ignorance. [Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah] By anonymity, Soloveitchik explains: "How does anonymity of man express itself? In the tragic reality of being forgotten, nameless people, who have vanished into nothingness, along with their gravemarks (if any)."
The ignorance we experience as slaves, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains, stems from our inability to identify our needs. "I don’t know what to fear, what not to fear; I am utterly confused and ignorant. Modern man, is indeed, existentially a slave, because he is ignorant and fails to identify his own needs."
Stuck in the despair of anonymity and ignorance, we are trapped in a form of modern slavery. We are all struggling in the world today to find ourselves and we must be gentler with others and ourselves. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches: "The idea that God is not on the side of power but of the powerless, that the creator of the universe liberates slaves, was the most powerful revolutionary force ever introduced into the political arena. It still is." [A Letter in the Scroll]
Furthermore, Rambam’s teaching, ironically in his laws for slavery, reinforce the principle that we must treat others with kindness and respect: "Cruelty and harshness are the ways of idolaters, while the seed of Abraham, Israel, who were taught by the Holy One through the beneficence of the Torah laws and statutes of righteousness, are merciful toward all.” [Hilkhot Avadim 9:8]
By adhering to higher ethics, principles, and values (such as those taught by Rambam and Rabbi Sacks) we start to shed the heavy weight of our chains. Even more, to re-find ourselves amid the shackles of modern conformity, we should surround ourselves with a supportive community of like-minded journeyers, be committed to our own personal authenticity, dedicate ourselves to the practices of service and giving to others and remain open and humble to changes in our personal courses.
It is all too easy to get stuck when we do the opposite: Try to operate alone; sacrifice authenticity for conformity; become self-absorbed and stop giving and serving others and become stagnant, content, and arrogant that we’re situated just fine in life, with no need for re-evaluation or changing course.
In a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Chenoch Lieberman written on March 8, 1951, the Rebbe urges that Chenoch, an artist, come to see the Divine essence in all he encounters:
…As you are surely aware, the primary talent of an artist is his ability to step away from the externalities of the thing and, disregarding its outer form, gaze into its innerness and perceive its essence, and to be able to convey this in his painting. Thus the object is revealed as it has never before been seen, since its inner content was obscured by secondary things. The artist exposes the essence of the thing he portrays, causing the one who looks at the painting to perceive it in another, truer light, and to realize that his prior perception was deficient. And this is one of the foundations of man's service of his Creator. As we know from the Torah – and particularly from the teaching of Chassidism – the entirety of creation stems from the word of G-d, and the word of G-d is what brings it into existence and sustains it in every moment of time. It is only that the Divine power of tzimtzum (constriction) holds the Divine life-force in a state of concealment and obscurity, and we perceive only its outer form (i.e., the physical reality). Our mission in life – based on the simple faith that "there is none else beside Him" – is that we should approach everything in life from this perspective. That we should each strive to reveal, as much as possible, the divine essence in everything, and minimize, to the extent that we are able, its concealment by the externalities of creation... So one must take great care that secondary and external matters should not obscure the essentials of life and its ultimate purpose.
In modernity, it is not challenging to get caught in material surface realities. The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that there is a much deeper cause and essence to all we encounter. We should embrace the wisdom of the Rebbe and subscribe to a life guided by Jewish values. Let us keep in mind that our life’s work is to live, and learn, on this deeper, inner and essential plane of reality, as the Rebbe writes in his letter. Let us bravely and defiantly tear off our shackles of slavery and conformity and be the guiding light unto the world that we are tasked with being.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.