“Let my people go!”

We know these words as the refrain of “Go Down Moses,” the beloved spiritual that originated as the anthem of the brave escaped slave soldiers during the Civil War. 

The song expresses a longing for liberty that many identify with the pivotal moment in the Bible: the Exodus from Egypt that Jews celebrate at Passover, which begins this Friday night.

These powerful words -- “Let my people go” -- have found their way into movies, folk songs, children’s books and liberation movements throughout the world.

But the modern adaptations of the biblical account tell only half the story.

Yes, the Exodus story in the Bible presents Moses demanding the Egyptian Pharaoh “Let my people go.” Actually, these words appear no fewer than seven times.

Yet, in each case, Moses is not speaking for himself. Rather, he is proclaiming a message from Israel’s God. 

Moreover, the liberation is tied to a specific purpose: 

“Let My people go so that they may worship/serve Me.” 

The Exodus account is unparalleled in the ancient world.

Confined to its first four words, the demand “Let my people go” expresses the desire to be emancipated from our shackles and to have free reign to do as we wish. 

The Exodus account is unparalleled in the ancient world.

Yet the full message that launches the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt has little to do with freedom in our sense of autonomy. It claims that the purpose of the emancipation is a new kind of service—or more precisely, service to someone else.

The word for freedom never appears in the Exodus account. The people of Israel remain servants after their liberation from Egypt.

Yet, instead of being forced to toil on the behalf of a despot, they now are offered the choice to serve one who cares deeply for their collective well-being and future.

The freedom that the liberation brings is not autonomy for Israel but rather a choice to enter into a covenant with their God. The terms of the covenant, inscribed in the Torah’s written laws, establish a new social order, one in which the nation’s survival requires that they serve their God and attend to the welfare of each other.

The Exodus account is unparalleled in the ancient world. People did not choose their gods. They did not enter into covenants with them, as Israel does at Sinai. Yet this, precisely, was the first destination as they escaped from slavery in Egypt.

Something else in this Exodus message often gets lost, this time in translation. The Hebrew word for bondage or servitude, including serving and worshipping God, is avodah.

The entire story of the Hebrew slaves and their liberation is framed by this word. It first appears when the Israelites are so oppressed that the cry out in anguish: “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage [avodah] and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage [avodah] rose up to God” (Exodus 2:23-24).

The exact same word appears when God gives final instructions to the Israelites as they prepare to leave the land of their enslavement and to celebrate Passover.

If slavery to Pharaoh is defined as avodah and worship or service to God is defined as avodah, what might be the difference? What kind of freedom, and servitude, do the words “Let my people go” express?

The rabbinic sages of the Talmud answered this question in their interpretation of the Sinai event. When Moses comes down from the mountain, the divine law he bears in his hand is said to be: “the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). The Hebrew word for “engraved” here is charut. The consonants of the word are identical to those of the word for freedom, cherut, differing only in punctuation.

Playing with the text, the ancient sages suggested: “Don’t read ‘engraved’ (charut); read instead ‘freedom’ (cherut).” 

This is more than charming wordplay. With this slight shift in pronunciation, the rabbis affirmed the power of law to guarantee freedom: The written commandments that serve as a covenant, binding us as a people to God and to each other in respect and responsibility are hailed as the source of life and liberty. 

Friday evening, Jews throughout the world will gather around the table with their family, friends and guests. They will re-tell many stories of liberation, beginning with the paradigmatic account of the emancipation from Egypt. And they will observe a form of avodah (service, worship) mandated by the book of Exodus.

In so doing, they will once again affirm, as Jews have for thousands of years, that there is no liberation without commitment and responsibility.

Rabbi Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi is the Effie Wise Ochs Professor of Biblical Literature and History at  Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion. She is the editor of "The Torah: A Women's Commentary". 

Dr. Jacob L. Wright is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University. His latest book is "David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory on King David". Follow him on Twitter@JacobLWright.