Pesach and the Search for Personal Freedom
Rabbi Jeremy Bruce studied at Yeshivat Hamivtar in the years 1991 – 92 and 1996 – 2001. He received his rabbinical ordination from the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary in 2001. He is currently the High School Principal of the Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland, Ohio.
What is the essence of Pesach? What transformative idea can we take away from this time of year? To answer this question I would like to begin by noting that our sages gave the Jewish festivals a number of names that reflect different aspects of the holiday. Sukkot is known as Z’man Simchateinu – the time of our happiness, Shavuot is Z’man Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah and Pesach is Z’man Cheruteinu – the celebration of our freedom.
On one level it is obvious why Pesach is the celebration of freedom. Every year we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt and the national birth and independence of our people. However this does not imply that Pesach is simply a history lesson or even an opportunity to to express our gratitude to G-d for saving us. While Pesach certainly is a time of Jewish national celebration and thanksgiving it also has a much more personal message.
One of the most powerful and impactful lines in the Haggadah is
בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם
In every generation a person is obligated to see themselves as though they had just left Egypt.
This reminds us that Pesach in general, and the Seder night in particular, are meant to transform us personally. Pesach is not simply a commemoration. It is a re-enactment – a re-living of the experience in the here and now. We are obligated to make the Pesach experience of freedom deeply relevant to our lives.
Although this is a beautiful idea, I have always been troubled with the question of how realistic this expectation is for the contemporary Jew, especially those of us who are blessed to live in freedom and comfort. If we are honest with ourselves, can we really imagine what it was like to be a slave who has been emancipated from bondage that has afflicted our people for hundreds of years?
If so, how can we fulfill this clear obligation to actually see ourselves as emancipated slaves on the night of Pesach?
The Ramchal – Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, the 18th century Italian philosopher and kabbalist – attempts to answer this question with a reconceptualization of Jewish time. For the Ramchal, time is not simply linear, moving inexorably from past to present to future; rather, time is cyclical in nature. Each and every festival is not merely a commemoration of a past event but an actual reliving of that time. Somehow we actually touch and re-experience what happened so many years ago. During Pesach we are able to access the spiritual energy of freedom that exists at this time of year. In this sense, we really do relive the Exodus from Egypt.
All well and good, but we still have to respond to my earlier question of how relatively free and prosperous 21st century Jews are meant to truly experience slavery before becoming free?
The Zohar tells us the root of the word Mitzrayim, Hebrew for Egypt, is Mei Tzarim meaning narrow straits or confinement. This means that the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, itself means slavery or in more contemporary language a dead end or cul-de-sac.
Although none of us, thank God, have experienced slavery, many have experienced times of great personal difficulty and trauma. Times when things have not gone our way or times when our hopes and dreams have been curtailed. Perhaps it’s a prized position that we didn’t obtain or some other form of disappointment in our lives.
Sometimes these setbacks can cause immense amounts of resentment and they can really hold us back. In this sense every one of us can see ourselves as enslaved, constrained and limited. And these restrictions can sometimes prevent us from achieving our God given potential.
What should we do? How do we get out of this dead end? What does Judaism teach us about these situations?
In a most profound way I believe that the Haggadah also answers this question.
At the start of the Seder we read the famous declaration of Ha Lachma Anya
This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate Pesach….Now we are slaves, next year may we all be free.
This statement also emphasizes that in some way all of us remain in slavery or in some form of personal constraint or limitation. But it also offers us a clear path to freedom!
According to the Haggadah we can free ourselves and move to a place of tranquillity by reaching out and offering our help to others. It is through this almost counterintuitive approach that we escape our constraints. To become free we must shift our focus and ask how can I help another? How can I relieve their pain? What could I do to make the world a better place for a family member, friend, or co-worker? As Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, puts it ‘the door to happiness opens outwards.’
As I reflect on my time at Yeshivat Hamivtar and the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary, I recall that this was a theme emphasized by my inspirational teachers. Learning Torah and becoming a Jewish leader was never simply about acquiring knowledge or religious expertise; rather, we were taught that the true role of a rabbi or Jewish leader is to transform the world inspired by the depths of Torah and Judaism.
May we all be blessed with a Chag Kasher V’Sameach, a happy and kosher Passover, and be inspired by the energy of this time to create a better world for those around us!