Tonight is the first night of Passover, the holiday where the Jewish people were released from slavery in Egypt, and went out to receive the Torah in the desert, where they met their God. Many of our holidays have alternate names; some have a few. Among the other names for this holiday, it is called one of the four New Years and the Festival of Spring. It is also called the holiday of freedom, as we celebrate the end of our bondage.
What is freedom, and how and when is a person, or a people, considered to be free? It is interesting to me that we left slavery only to attach ourselves to God, to worship and become, in essence, servants again. Yet because we chose that, because it was *our choice*, we considered ourselves to be free. So when we choose to be religious for ourselves, it is freeing, but when we put *our* choices on others, we are taking away their freedom.
I read a meaningful blog by Lia Ciner this week, about the struggle she had with her divorce and how, for her, this brought a deeper meaning to the word freedom. This probably speaks to others as well, as I know women who suffered in the chains of marriage, like a good friend this year whose term was thankfully “brief”, but there are some who languish for many years, unable to ‘get’ free.
The idea of what freedom is also went through my mind as we drove through the beautiful countryside today, and when I was out this week. Yesterday I drove west, passing the town of Ramallah. If that whole area does not give you a feeling of a people imprisoned, then you are probably not looking out the window. Yet today we passed Arab towns and Jewish towns, and it was the Jews behind the barbed wire and large metal gates, while the Arab fields were free. Often, I drive out of my town and see the red signs warning me, warning us not to go in there, and I have passed Arabs blithely walking on the roads, unafraid. I think that they can do this because they know that unlike what may (and has) happened to Jews who accidentally wander into their towns, there is no doubt that lynching and worse would *not* be done to them by us. Sometimes I wonder who is truly free in our country.
And yet, I have also seen how some of them live, so unequally. Some seem to have beautiful houses while others live in dirty shacks. I believe that their government does not take care of them, leaves them in misery, encourages them to get hurt and die for their cause, instead of helping everyone improve their standard of living. As I write, I know that down south by the Gaza border, Arabs are being incited to riot, despite our government warning that there will be only one outcome from that, and it will be to their detriment.
When we moved to Israel 11 and a half years ago, our children were young. Yet we looked at the soldiers guarding us, stopping us at the machsomim (checkpoints) and commented how young they looked. We used to say to each other that this one must be 15, that one, 12. Later, we got used to it somewhat. I have even felt safer at times of violence and unrest, seeing them there, with their guns.
The longer we stayed here, the older our children grew, along with my students, children of others who, as a teacher can, I also love. In more recent years, the earliest of my students have become those baby soldiers, those brave men and women protecting their nation. This has been both wonderful and yet also difficult, especially this year, when for the first time, I lost a former student.
Recently, we had the zechut (merit) to join the ranks of those holy parents who have given the most they can to our country, their own flesh and blood. We could not be more proud to have a son serving in the IDF, a boy who laughed at me when we went to dinner with him in uniform and when I noticed someone smiling at his uniform, I smiled back and excitedly pointed to him saying he was ours.
At the beginning of this week he did his first shmira (guard duty), watching over his unit from his post. This was a new step for him, and another step on the ladder of how nervous we need to be when he is not home. No, he does not often have the danger that I know so many face constantly. Yet, when I picked him up and we chanced to drive through an Arab neighborhood while he was wearing green, for the first time in a long time, instead of the safer feeling I had experienced when near someone in our uniform, I felt vulnerable; I felt like a possible target. It was a scary and unsettling feeling, as well as disturbing. But we went on and got home safely.
When we talk about freedom, when we think about freedom, do we understand that someone, somewhere, may be paying a price for our freedom? When those in America want the freedom to buy the guns they want, when they want, do they see that they are possibly taking the freedom someone else has to live? Or that children should have to feel safe in their own schools? When we sleep safe in our beds, do we consider that someone else’s child, or our own, may be putting him or herself at risk, so that we can have a country?
I read a short dvar torah this week that Passover was actually a mistranslation from the Hebrew, that although it is the night that God passed over the houses of the Jews in order to kill only the Egyptian first born, the word would have been more appropriately translated as “Night of Compassion”. With all that the Egyptians had done to us over the years, the torture and murder of us and our children, we still find in us the compassion to remove some of the wine in our glasses when we talk about the plagues, about the suffering the Egyptians went through. We do not say a full Hallel for the whole holiday. Yes, we sang at the parting of the Sea, we exulted to finally be free to be a people. But even until now, the Jewish people tend to be at the forefront of many causes, doing our best to help wherever we can. The worldview of us now as the oppressors pains me, makes me want to scream “That is not who we are!” Our country is a small piece of the larger world where many are suffering, many are oppressed, and so much of the world is not truly free. I believe we are doing our best here, but it is hard knowing that as we sit down to celebrate tonight, some of our sons are on the borders, putting themselves in danger and being an integral part of layl hashmurim, the night of protection.
As we sit together tonight I will be thinking of them, and of the many others suffering. I will be hoping and praying. This is my prayer. May those who are doing their best to bring pain, to hurt others, leave us in peace and try to build us their lives instead of taking ours down. May all our boys come home safely, and may next year be a worldwide holiday of freedom.