My kids and I recently watched ‘The Prince of Egypt,’ Jeffrey Katzenberg’s animated take on the Exodus story. And while I liked the movie a lot, there was one major misconception that I found problematic: the movie made the Exodus story all about freedom.

Granted, freedom is a key piece of the story. We refer to Passover as “z’man heruteinu,” the time of our liberation. Self-determination is an important value. As the movie portrays it, the thing that is wrong is the notion that human beings are enslaved. In a moving episode, Moses asks Pharaoh (his erstwhile brother, in this telling anyway), What do you see when you look out on all your building projects? Pharaoh sees an empire; Moses sees it built on the backs of slaves. The insight is thus to see all human beings as created equally in God’s image, which leads to the notion that all human beings must be free to make their own choices.

But in its modern telling, of which ‘The Prince of Egypt’ is now a canonical instrument, the valence of the word ‘freedom’ has obscured a fundamental question: freedom for what? Katzenberg’s movie focuses on the plagues and the splitting of the sea, and gives about 30 seconds at the end to an image of Moses going to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, all the while keeping the focus on Moses. The story thus becomes, “Moses was a prince of Egypt who led his people, the Hebrews, out of slavery, and became a lawgiver,” as though the last part is a throwaway line.

But of course the law is equally as important as the freedom. Freedom from another’s rule by itself is not enough; freedom must directed towards a purpose. In the case of the Exodus story, this theme is clear from the outset. God tells Moses to bring the people to the mountain. Moses repeatedly tells Pharaoh in God’s name to “send forth my people” (a more literal translation of “let my people go”) “so that they may serve me.” The children of Israel go from avadim, servants, of Pharaoh to being avadim, servants, of God. The story isn’t about losing the status of eved, servant; the story is about changing the master to whom service is rendered. This is why we connect the holidays Passover and Shavuot–z’man heruteinu and z’man matan torateinu, the time of our liberation and the time of the giving of our Torah–with the counting of the Omer. You can’t have one without the other.

For at least the last 50 years, and perhaps longer, Americans have focused on the ‘freedom from’ of the Exodus story, but have forgotten the ‘freedom for’ aspect. Nowhere is this phenomenon as pronounced as in our institutions of higher education. We rightly emphasize critical thinking and a doubting approach to authority. But our academic culture has largely lost the second, crucial step: after asking “what is false?” we must also ask “what is true?” The service of Pharaoh is false, the service of God is true. What does it mean to serve God? That is the biggest question of them all. In the words of Hillel: Go and learn.

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