In this week's parashah/Torah reading, we are offered a profound lesson through the use of a simple Hebrew word.
A song that many of us learned in Religious School as kids that we sang around Pesach time is: "Avadim hayinu, hayinu. Ata b'nei horin, b'nai horin."
"We were slaves. Now we are a free people."
The word for slaves in Hebrew is "avadim." As is the case with almost all Hebrew words, it is built on a three letter root:
ע ב ד
In the book of Sh'mot/Exodus, which we are reading now, the Israelites are referred to as avadim a number of times.
Then God has Moses say to Pharaoh: "shlach et ami sheya'avduni." Let My people go, that they may serve Me. The word for "that they may serve Me" is built on that same three letter root עבד that serves as the root for "slave."
Is the Torah equating slavery to service to God? We know that the phenomena are deeply different. In slavery there is no question of devotion. In service to God we choose to devote ourselves.
On the other hand, in slavery the only goals are those of the taskmaster. And in the service to God, we, too, are meant to internalize God's goals for us.
Perhaps the etymological lesson of עבד as Egyptian slavery and עבד as elevating worship, devotion, and study of God and Torah is that the qualitative difference is a matter of who we serve.
In our time and place, it is up to us to determine who we serve. Our culture offers us many unelevating choices . . . and our tradition offers one inspiring, enriching choice.
May we choose wisely that to which we devote ourselves.