On Friday night at the Pesach seder, Jews around the world will celebrate our freedom. We will recall the miracle of our liberation from slavery in ancient times and envision an era of ultimate freedom for all of humanity. As part of our ceremony, we will drink four cups of wine which, among other things, represent the four different terms for redemption used in the promise that God will take us out from slavery (Exodus 6).
Four different terms suggest four different experiences or levels of liberation. The end of slavery was only the beginning of our liberation. We were liberated, rescued, redeemed and transformed into a free people.
The Haggadah says that the more we engage in discussion and interpretation — hare ze meshubach — the more worthwhile our seder is and we are told that in every generation we should see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt. I am driven to ask what four levels of redemption might mean now, for our generation in today’s world. My vision is universal, for although the Pesach story is most certainly a particular national myth, it has inspired dreams of liberation and freedom movements from the civil rights movement in America to Ghandi’s campaign in India and South Africa. We have learnt throughout history that one people can never fully be free while others remained enslaved.
Here are the four levels of freedom to which I will drink on Friday night.
- Freedom from slavery. It would be nice to be able to say that slavery was a thing of the past but we all know that there are millions of slaves today (according to Gallup, 36 million). Millions are children. I will say the blessing on the first cup expressing my gratitude that my ancestors were released from slavery. I grew up without being in bondage or servitude and pray that all children will be given that opportunity.
- Freedom from oppression. Simply not being a slave, owned by another person, does not guarantee one freedom from oppression. How few people today live in freedom, without political oppression! Some are oppressed because of their ethnicity, their beliefs or their culture. Others because they pose a threat to the dictatorial powers of the rulers of their land. My second cup will celebrate the fact that I have never lived under an oppressive regime and I will pray that everyone will be able to experience life in a society that values human rights.
- Freedom of political expression — self-determination. In the Pesach story, the narrative is not just taking the Children of Israel out of slavery but their journey from slavery to the Promised Land via a 40-year sojourn in the desert for nation-building. One of the defining movements of the past Century was towards self-determination. Today, when people speak of “freedom,” they usually think in terms of living in a nation-state with which they identify and in which they have full citizenship. While nation states can and do accommodate minorities, freedom is associated with having the opportunity to live in a state that reflects one’s identity and culture. The Jewish people achieved this freedom again in 1948, with the declaration of the State of Israel, after an awful period in the wilderness which consolidated our determination to return to the Land that determined our identity. My third cup will honour the Divine hand in this miracle of our restoration to our Land and ask for Divine intervention to help all people find their self-determination – to help solve the crises of refugees and of occupations and conquests. It took the Divine hand to bring us home. It is clear to me that similar miracles are going to be needed for the other displaced nations. However, we know that even if we cannot complete the task, we are not absolved from responsibility for trying. (Pirkei Avot 2:21). At our seder tables, we need to raise our consciousness and our determination to help others who have not yet experienced the blessings that we have.
- Freedom from deprivation and ignorance. Release from slavery, liberation from oppressive regimes and self-determination do not guarantee people the highest level of freedom — the conditions in which they can flourish economically, socially, intellectually and spiritually. With huge gaps between rich and poor, Israel is among the worst offenders among the democratic and prosperous countries that allow a high proportion of its citizens to live in poverty and in ignorance. What can each of us do to alleviate the deprivations of others in our own societies and elsewhere? My final cup will be drunk with a little sadness, for not only will it mean that the seder will be close to its end but it will remind me how many are so far from the freedoms that I have been celebrating.
Jews celebrated Pesach in all sorts of situations — under Roman domination, at the time of the Inquisition and even in Auschwitz. Drinking to freedom (or at least reciting the words of the blessings) reminded us that every situation can be overturned. It had happened once and would happen again. The “memory” of the Exodus provided hope.
On every seder table is a fifth cup –– the cup of Elijah the Prophet — which represents a vision of universal redemption, in a future world unblemished by slavery, oppression or deprivation. In every generation, we can appreciate what we have but even today we need to be aware of how much there is still to do.
Elijah’s cup reminds us that the redemption is not complete. We cannot sip from Elijah’s cup until all of humanity enjoys all four types of freedom.
On our table, we add another cup — the cup of Miriam. Miriam’s cup, filled with water, reminds us that women are also part of this story and that they often ensure the family’s survival by taking care of our most basic needs. In the case of Miriam, it was she who saved her baby brother Moses by watching over him on the River Nile and it was she who was rewarded by the well of water that ensure our survival in the desert. Water and our other basic needs precede even our need for freedom.