Dov Lerea

Freedom Pesach 5783

In his book, Freedom, Sebastian Junger explains one theory about the etymological meaning of the word, “freedom:”

The word freedom comes from vridom, which means, “beloved” in medieval German, and is thought to reflect the idea that only people in one’s immediate group were considered worthy of having rights or protection. Outsiders, on the other hand, could be tortured, enslaved, or killed at will. This was true throughout the world and for most of human history, and neither law nor religion nor common decency held otherwise. (pp. 77-78)

This etymological explanation sheds linguistic light on historical struggles for freedom by minority populations and those castigated as “other,” outsiders and disenfranchised populations. Junger suggests that Hugo Grotius was the first legal scholar in the early modern period to argue philosophically that the legal rights of freedom and protection should be extended to vanquished peoples:

Grotius based his idea on something called natural law, which held that human beings—because they were created by God—had rights, such as liberty that could not be taken away. To do so would be to subvert God’s will. Natural law was easy to circumvent, though, because a government or army could just consider the enemy to be subhuman….Once you have dehumanized others…you do not have to worry about killing or enslaving God’s children, because God’s real children are supposedly limited to you and your tribe or clan. (Junger, pp. 79-80)

One does not have to search long in the newspaper or through current podcasts, or know much about both human history and current events for these statements to resonate with truth. 

In the Haggadah, the Hebrew word for “freedom” is Ben Chorin, as in the passage Ha Lachma ‘Anya which serves as a prelude to the Maggid section of the seder:

This is the bread of destitution that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Anyone who is famished should come and eat, anyone who is in need should come and partake of the Pesach sacrifice. Now we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel; this year we are slaves, next year we will be free people (bene chorin).

The word, chorin, in Hebrew does not mean, “beloved.” It means, “royalty,” “leader,” “dignitary” or “noble.” See, for example, the verse in I Kings describing Jezebel’s plot against Navot in order to secure his land:

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters to the elders and the nobles (hachorim) who lived in the same town with Naboth. (I Kings 21:8)

The word appears with this meaning a significant number of times throughout the Tanach. See, amongst others, Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi, 12th c, Narbonne, and Metzudat Zion, and Rabbi David Altschuler, 17th c Prague, on I Kings 21:8. The Ralbag, Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, 13th-14thc Avignon and Perpignan, wrote that the chorim in the verse from Kings were the “judges and royalty.” 

I suggest that the freedom of the seder is not the “freedom of the modern world we inhabit. The freedom for which we pray and to which we aspire on Pesach is the hope that we are blessed to live as dignified human beings. The freedom of Pesach does not imply a tribal, nativistic commitment to our own people to the exclusion of other cultures, groups, or nations. The freedom of Pesach projects the longing and human need to transform ourselves into royalty, in order to lead noble lives. The hope for nobility, to feel important, feel responsible for the world, transcends our particularistic cultural garments. All human beings need to feel they lead noble, meaningful lives, and build those lives while nourished by their own stories and culture. Perhaps this is why the seder opens with Ha Lachma ‘Anya, on a universalistic note that recognizes our particular identity in the larger context of a shared humanity. This reading of freedom as human dignity was expressed by Rabbi Shaul Löwenstam, 1717-1790 Av Beit Din of Amsterdam, in his commentary on the Haggadah:

The text says, “Let anyone who is hungry come and eat.” This is a call to go out, gather and invite those who are starving, and bring them into your house. At your house, they will eat and drink without feeling ashamed of themselves. We are told to do this, because we were once slaves with little food, starving and poor. From the reward we get for doing this mitzvah, we will be given the opportunity again next year to behave with humility and bring more poor, homeless or neglected people into our homes. 

The call to understand that the celebration of our own dignity as a people is a universalistic calling for us to look outwards towards other peoples, cultures and nations, was stated explicitly by Rabbi Ya’akov Emden, the “Ya’avatz,” 18th c. Hamburg and Altona:

The text says, “Let anyone who is hungry come and eat.” It is obvious that this text is about all poor people, and not only Jews. This is why the custom was literally to go into the streets and make an announcement, inviting the poor to join in the festivities by inviting them into our homes. …That line means, “Let all human beings who are hungry, come and eat, so that the world can be filled with more peace and wholeness.” Then the text specifically commands us to invite and feed Jewish poor people to come and eat from the korban Pesach. 

By interpreting the “freedom” of the seder as the yearning and struggle for human dignity, our one story becomes a paradigm for the religious commitment to support every people’s struggle. The modern, secular understanding of freedom has enabled nations to dehumanize others, leading to catastrophic oppression and extermination. The Haggadah calls for a different freedom. It calls us to see ourselves in the struggles of others. No nation’s freedom can rest on the oppression of others.

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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