Those of you with young children or grandchildren surely know books like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Big Nate.” My kids love them and I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, of course, to wean them from these literary paupers. I started a quixotic quest to introduce them to the classics with one of the favorite authors of my youth: Alexandre Dumas. In so doing, I couldn’t help but think about Pesach.
One of the central characters in “The Count of Monte Cristo” is the Abbot Faria, a prisoner who, during years of painstaking toil, digs an escape tunnel with his spoon. When his work is finished, poor Faria discovers the tunnel took him not to freedom, but to another cell.
We can assume that Dumas knew the Bible, but I doubt he ever celebrated Pesach. Yet, he captured one of the central truths in the story of the Exodus: that we don’t gain freedom just by leaving a cell. If we don’t know where we are going, we are doomed to find ourselves in a Kafkaesque dungeon from which no escape is possible.
What is then true freedom in the spirit of Pesach? This is probably one of the central questions of Judaism, because we can certainly say that our traditions are nothing but a meditation on human freedom.
Freedom is certainly not the absence of physical bondage. Pesach understands the end of slavery as the beginning of liberation, not its end. That moment is the fracture that allows us to find freedom, but it’s not yet freedom itself. And therein lies a major difference in the way the modern world understands freedom and how Judaism comprehends it.
Freedom, in the Western world, is understood as a negative. It’s seen as the absence of constraints. But for Judaism, freedom is a positive. It’s not about absence, but presence. It is a paradoxical freedom that obliges and compels. It’s not freedom from something, but freedom for something. For Judaism, there’s no freedom without purpose and there’s no liberty without meaning.
In “The Count of Monte Cristo,” Abbot Faria helps turn Dantes, the main character, into a bitter man who only wants to leave prison to exact revenge on those who conspired to put him behind bars on false charges. Because of that, even when he escapes, Dantes is never truly free, because freedom can’t grow in the parched field of vengeance. In the end, Faria had built for Dantes a tunnel that emerged in yet another cell of hatred.
Without purpose, without meaning, we become slaves to our own selves; we think we leave prison but we end up in cells of selfishness, irrelevance and loneliness. Being free is committing to something bigger than yourself, because if you don’t, your ego becomes your Egypt. Maybe that is why every time we remember the exodus from Egypt we tie that memory to a moral imperative. “Love the stranger, because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” Freedom for us is not license but commitment.
Our sages taught that the name Egypt (Mitzrayim) comes from the words “Metzer Yam” (a deep sea). It is, they said, not a physical place, but a type of slavery in which we are all submerged. They were right: We are confined by the cells we invent for ourselves, by the tyranny of our ambitions and the dictatorship of our egotism. The only way out is not through a tunnel, but through an opening in our heart. Pesach doesn’t let us lament our slavery, rather, it challenges us by saying that we’ll be judged not by what we endured but by what we contribute.
So this Pesach, think that you are never as free as when you give to others; when you change other people’s lives and when you commit to make the world a better place. Take a moment to bask in the freedom to be generous, to be just, and to spread goodness. Think of the ultimate freedom: that of devoting yourself to a life of purpose; the freedom to be a full partner in the construction of Judaism and the world in which you want your children to live. This Pesach, may we all have the courage to build our freedom step by step, walking slowly but confidently in the direction of our dreams
As you may well imagine, I didn’t succeed in making my kids emerge from the literary bondage of modern America. Dumas lost to Pokemon and Jules Verne was as close as I got to 19th-century classics. But we will read together the Haggadah, a book that, thanks to its questions, never goes out of fashion.