A rabbi was once asked if he celebrates Independence Day. His response was, yes, each year on the 15th of Nissan. And truly, Passover is the first holiday of freedom and independence.
What is the freedom that is at the heart of the Seder? This is a challenging philosophical question, and I wish to attempt to answer, if only partially, with the aid of a Talmudic source that deals with the issue of defining the appropriate moment to recline at the Seder, and when not to, and who should recline and who should not. The Mishna states that a poor man must also recline, indicating that even in poverty we can sense freedom. The same mishna also teaches that a poor man must drink wine at the Seder, implying that one can savor freedom even when supported by others.
On the other hand, the gemara states that we do not recline when eating the maror, the bitter herb, because it symbolizes enslavement. This teaches us that not all of the Seder is about freedom, only specific parts of it.
In acknowledgement of this division, the gemara establishes that we recline when drinking two of the four cups of wine. The text then debates, which two? The last two cups, because at the first two we are still preoccupied with the story of enslavement in Egypt; or the first two cups, because it is then that we experience the liberation from slavery and can taste freedom. In the end, the gemara concludes that we recline while drinking each of the four cups, but the distinction made between the states of enslavement and freedom shows us that freedom is a subjective thing. We can easily feel enslaved, or be oblivious to our state of freedom.
The gemara proceeds to the question of who should recline. Women and Bet Midrash students are exempt – for both are in a kind of enslavement. An exception is made for women ‘of importance’ and for the apprentice, neither of whom are considered to be enslaved. These two exceptions express, I believe, the gemara‘s implied criticism of a situation in which the freedom that is at the heart of Pesach is granted to some but not to all; moreover, we are bound to strive to correct that situation.
The statement regarding women is fairly clear, and the gemara seems to imply that ideally, all women should be included in the exception clause. In the case of students, the distinction between a Torah scholar and an apprentice indicates that the former is more bound to authority than the latter. Although the gemara does not voice an outright critique of this, I propose that it prefers a bet midrash where a student feels free – for this freedom is key to Torah learning and worship, just as the children of Israel needed to be free in order to worship God in the desert.
We have seen that freedom is subjective, but there is still a chance that each of us – a partner or a teacher and even one who gives charity – can become an oppressor. Thus, we must take care not to enslave the other in order to gain our own freedom.
In our Bet Midrash we dare to propose new ways of reading texts; to engage in Torah that assumes that all women are important and free; and to strive for students who come to the Bet Midrash not from a sense of enslavement to authority but as a free choice.