Frederick L. Klein

‘Are We Really Free?’ or ‘We Really Are Free’: A Message for Passover

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In a recent conversation with someone, they uttered the brutal truth that so many feel. We are living in times of untold sadness, of radical uncertainty. Events are changing at such a dizzying pace that we do not know what tomorrow brings, much less next week or next year. Our Haggadah teaches that a person is obligated to see him or herself as if they were redeemed from Egypt. “I always said this in my seder, but frankly it didn’t mean anything.  I couldn’t relate to it. This year it is all I think about. I don’t need to be reminded to imagine myself in Egypt, because I believe the Jewish people are living it!”

Do we need to be reminded to leave an empty seat at the seder plate for the hostages?  Do we need to imagine what hatred looks like? Does our family in Nir Oz, Beeri, Kfar Aza or the other evacuated kibbutzim and settlements need to be reminded of Egypt?  Do they need prodding to relate to the genocidal visions of Pharoah, while family members languish in Gaza?  Between the chants ‘the Jews will not replace us’ and ‘from the river to the Sea, Palestine will be free,’ do we not hear the dehumanizing program of Pharoah so long ago, in which the Jews are seen as an ‘errant weed’, a ‘third rail’, a ‘subversive element’ in our midst or in our world? On the seder night we quote the litany composed by medieval Jews following the crusades, ‘Pour out your wrath against the nations.”  While this should never be construed as a political program, would any of us deny the anger, even fury our siblings are experiencing?  Would we deny our own feelings?

Yet, there is another element to the rabbinic adage.  One must not only imagine that they are in Egypt, but that one leaves Egypt.  The rabbis provide a framework in which we must tell the story.  We begin with what is referred to as genut, which can be translated as disgrace or degradation.  But we must end with shevach, or praise.  In other words, whatever traumas we experience that night must be affirmed by all present, but then -at least for a moment- yield to moments of redemption expressed in praise.

How do we transform a heart burdened by worry and fear into one of hope and resilience?  How did our ancestors achieve this?  We do this by telling a story, a specific story, which consists of miracles and wonders.  In reality, the Seder is not about telling a story of the past- it is not really about Egypt- but rather using a story of the past as a template as to how we think about the present as well as our hopes for the future.  To tell a good story we start with the imaginative faculty, constructing personal and national stories that end with our own miracles and wonders.

Avital Chizuk-Goldschmidt is a journalist and Jewish teacher, a first generation American, as her parents were emigres from the Soviet Union.  She writes:

For years, I longed for the “right” kind of seder- a litany of divrei Torah and of songs sung by the whole table.  I dreamt of a Seder where the intergenerational transmission of tradition went from old to young, rather than from young to old, which is how I (rather arrogantly) saw our Seder.  The transposing of Soviet memory onto the text, at first, seemed inauthentic.  It was as if the towers of the Kremlin were blocking my view of the pyramids of Pithom and Ramses.

Later did I realize that that was, in fact, the embodiment of “In every generation a person must see themselves as if they left Egypt themselves.” Little did I understand that those memories, those stories of oppression, antisemitism, hunger, taking place across the landscape of Kiev, Kharkov, and the steppes of Northern Siberia- they were the ultimate fulfillment of the chiyuv, the obligation, to imagine.

The ability to imagine is an essential part of our religious experience.  We are called upon to use our personal experiences to access emotional relevance to ritual; without stories, stories that feel intimate, the ritual risks feeling irrelevant, distant, academic even.  It is our secret hardships which help us understand what Egypt is, and it is jubilant victories which help us understand the crossing of the Sea….[1]

There is an art to the night of the seder, in which we imagine new possibilities for both our national and personal life.  The multilayered nature of the seder night is expressed in a fundamental debate recorded in the Talmud.  What exactly is the story of the night?  What is the degradation and what is the praise? For one sage (Shmuel) it begins with avadim hayiunu-we were slaves in Egypt- and ends veYotzeinu Hashem MiMitzraim- and God took us out of Egypt.  This is a story of physical liberation, of return, and even resistance.  We imagine and declare in the opening of the retelling, ‘this year we are slaves but next year we will be free; this year we are here but next year in the land of Israel.’  However. another sage (Rav) provides quite a different narrative.  We begin with ‘our ancestors were idolators’ and end with ‘and now God has brought us close to God’s worship.’ In this retelling, our redemption ultimately has nothing to do with what is happening outside of us, but what is occurring inside of us.  To quote the Canadian poet Dianne Brand

Revolutions do not happen outside of  you, they happen in the vein, they change you and you change yourself, you wake up in the morning changing.  You say this is the human being I want to be.  You are making for yourself a future, and you do not even know the extent of it when you begin but you have a hint, a taste in your throat of the warm elixir of the possible.

Rav is offering us a different avenue to redemption; the most important dimension of Jewish life is not the political life of the body, but the spiritual life of the soul.

Of course, Jewish tradition ultimately did not adjudicate between the positions, and both narratives are recorded in the traditional Haggadah. The reason for this is clear; different people and different generations will gravitate to diverse stories. Even if the body politic has been battered and bruised, as we have seen after October 7, Rav offers a possibility not to succumb in defeat in the realm of our spiritual lives. Rav states that Passover is a time in which we reconnect with our ultimate values, and these values matter at all times and all places and all situations.  The seder night commands us to try and find a way in which we feel a sense of agency, of hope and purpose, when everything around us may feel confusing, uncertain, even absurd.  How do we do that?

Maimonides, in his laws of Passover, quotes the rabbinic adage ‘that one must see themselves leaving Egypt,’  but has a variant text.  A person is not required to see themselves leaving Egypt (lir’ot et atzmo) but rather act out leaving Egypt (lehar’ot et atzmo).  In other words, whatever the present situation, a person takes positive actions that are indicative of freedom, of agency on that night.  The rituals, the foods, the celebratory nature of the evening are actually meant to create a liberated state of consciousness now.

I would like to focus on one of the central rituals of the night that bears out this truth, the obligation to drink four cups of wine.  Unlike Friday night kiddush, in which we bless the sabbath over wine, according to many commentators the drinking of the wine itself is central to the night, as drinking the four cups while reclining is indicative of derech cherut– the way of leisurely people and even kings.  Paupers and slaves do not recline and eat leisurely meals with wine but eat hurriedly, harassed by the pressing needs of the moment.   On the seder night, Jews follow the rule of one of the four questions, drinking the wine while reclining, an expression of leisure.  The wine is not drunk at one moment, as if to drown one’s sorrow, but interspaced throughout the meal, inserted in blessing and song.

Moreover, the rabbis teach that every Jew on seder evening must be provided with enough wine for the four cups, and even the local food bank or soup kitchen is required to provide every person with wine![2]  One might think this is overkill, that a soup kitchen is supposed to provide sustenance, not luxuries.  However, on the seder night, everyone must be enabled to see themselves as people who are free.

While rabbinic tradition records a number of sources for this obligation, the most cited one states that these four cups are to remind us of ‘four phrases of redemption’.  In chapter six of Exodus, God promises Moses:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you (v’hotzeiti) from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you (v’hitzalti) from their bondage. I will redeem you (v’ga’alti) with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary wonders. And I will take you (v’lakachti)to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians (6:6-7).

Four phrases- I will free you, I will deliver you, I will redeem you, and I will take you.   Redemption does not occur at one moment but is progressive and multi-dimensional.   In my estimate, these four phrases represent four prayers for us personally, as well as our people.  They are calls to action, to imitate the actions of God in bringing redemption into the world.

I will free you from the oppression of Egypt– In this line God expressed that God would liberate the Jews from the actual pain of Egypt.  As long as a person feels the whip of the task master, they cannot imagine any other future other than an escape from pain.  In this verse, God tells Moses that the screams of the slaves are not in vain, that God hears their pain and will respond.  As Jews, we cannot sit comfortably in our seders, as there are those still sitting in the tunnels of Gaza.  Like God, we are stirred by the cries of their family members and commit ourselves to be God’s agents in doing what we can to free them.  In our personal lives we may be suffering our own Egypts, and on this night, we drink the wine of freedom in expectation that what we face will soon end.  Neither our national nor personal histories are determined, and we live our lives in the hope for change.

I will deliver you from their bondage- Many have commented that it is easier to take the Jews out of Egypt than to take the Egypt out of the Jews.   The trauma and the fear that gripped the generation of survivors of Egypt lasted well beyond the Exodus.  In truth, the entire generation of those who left Egypt died in the desert, never entering the promised land.  In our generation, we know the long-term impacts of the Holocaust on not only the survivors, but even future generations.  Even when the physical threat is gone, even when a person is physically secure, they may emotionally still feel unsafe and vulnerable.  In this promise, God assures Moses that in time God will deliver them from the bondage mentality, that which prevents them from truly being free.

The events of October 7 and its aftermath will end, and at the same time the emotional scars on all of us will linger far beyond, even for generations.  In drinking this cup of freedom, we express the desire to let go of the unhealthy traumatic scars we carry, for these scars narrow our frame of vision.  We pray for the emotional healing we need to be truly a free person or a free people.

I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary wonders– In this promise, God promises a reorientation of how we see ourselves.  When Moses came to announce the redemption, the Jewish people were an oppressed minority, ruled by the most powerful nation of the ancient world.  Pharaoh was a god, the apex of a power structure that was integrated into the architecture of creation itself.   In the plagues, and especially at the Sea of Reeds, the people realized that in truth the entire world structure of power, of historical inevitability, was a house of cards.  The people saw the ‘outstretched arms and wonders’, saw the most powerful army drown in the sea, and at that moment they realized that nothing in this world is permanent, only the Eternal One.

Redeemed people are people who look at the world through a prism of opportunity.  They realize that the past is not necessarily a predictor of what will be.  They are not fatalistic about the future on personal and national levels.  In our particular historical predicament, we may feel there can never be peace between us as Jews, much less with our Palestinian neighbors.

In celebrating 75 years for Israel last year, we could both marvel at what is, but at the same time look at the challenges we have, challenges that seem insurmountable.  But were they more insurmountable than the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds?  According to the rabbis, one man from the tribe of Judah, Nachshon, walked into the Sea and miraculously the sea split.   Seas are not meant to split, but in the words of the Psalms, “the Sea saw and fled”.  It fled when it saw the dedication of people like Nachshon, who believed in the possibility that the impossible is actually possible!

And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God-  These verses allude to the covenant made at Mount Sinai. God promises Moses that not only will they be absolutely freed, but they will be destined to greatness.  Here is when the Jewish people become partners with God in building a world grounded in ultimate values of justice and kindness. This is the highest level of liberation, where we are invited to transform ourselves, our communities, our people and ultimately the world.  To do such a thing, we cannot live lives consumed by fear, or trauma, or fatalism but rather by a sense of faith in God and in ourselves.  While understanding the road to building a more redeemed world is never easy nor linear, we continually design pathways to achieve our idealistic goals.

In truth, I am not always sure I can tap this level of faith, seeing the level of violence and dysfunction around the world.  “What can I do? I am but one person.”  However, each of us live in circles of influence, and we do not know how our actions impact those around us, much less the course of history.

This Passover, more than others perhaps, we will be telling the story of the Exodus with a sense of trepidation and mixed feelings.  We know how to cry and how to celebrate, but it is extremely hard to do both at the same time.    We may emotionally not yet be able to access all of these dimensions described above.  Indeed, when Moses delivered these words to the Israelites the first time, the Torah tells us they did not believe him, ‘from the shortness of breath and the hard labor’ (6:9).  At the same time, our tradition tells us to drink in a manner of freedom, to act as if we are free.  Imagination plants the initial seeds of hope.  This has and always has been the message of Passover.

Chag Sameach

[1] Avital Chizuk-Goldschmidt, “The Power of Imagination,” in The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggadah, Stuart Halpern and Jacob Kupietzky eds., (Maggid, 2024), pp. 234-235

[2] For a halakhic analysis of the mitvah of the four cups, as well as a dissenting opinion in Tosafot and others, see the Halakhic Novellae of Rabbi Yosef Zeev Soloveitchik (the Brisker Rav) in Chidushei Maran Ri’z Halevi, Hlikhot Chametz Umatzah 7:39

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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