The month of Nissan is here and the Jewish world is buzzing with the sounds of Pesach preparation. While each of the many Jewish festivals brings with it a certain amount of anticipation, arguably none does more so than than the chag hamatzot. One week without chametz (eating or even owning): bread, pasta or several other categories of foods that are central to the diet of most people, but during Passover are forbidden. So for the next few weeks, most comments between friends (and strangers) will be little more than an exchange of notes on whose cleaning lady cancelled, whose toddlers brought the forbidden cereal into the room that was already freed of chametz and just how many stores were shlepped to before finding that one ingredient for that one recipe that had to be made because someone’s grandmother said it’s just not Passover without it.
We forget, though, the other name of Pesach, Zman Cheiruteinu – literally, the time of our freedom. On sedar night, we are given the ultimate gift from Hashem, our freedom. The Jewish people do not even get the choice of acceptance because, of course, when one is enslaved and freedom is offered, there is no real option other than acceptance. We are commanded to remember the exile from Egypt as if we were there because, while we may not remember it as such, our souls did make that journey and become the free people we are today.
In his book, Remembering Abraham, Dr. Ronald Hendel of the University of California at Berkeley asserts that, “Memories of shared suffering are potent ingredients in the formation and persistence of ethnic identity.” While our ancestors identities were formed by the common experience of slavery, I question whether our current ethnic identity should be based solely on the suffering of generations past or with the additional benefit of the shared freedoms that are experienced in the time since we were freed.
The Torah teaches us that “God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with awe and with signs and wonders” (Devarim 2:8), but in the midst of this pre-Pesach frenzy, people often ask where these “signs and wonders” are today. It would be so easy to prepare for Pesach…to rid the house and the heart of chametz if Hashem was not so hidden in our lives.
There is a story in the Talmud about a father who carries his son on his shoulders all day and night, wherever he goes. When the son is hungry, the father reaches up to feed him. Without fuss or fail, the father cares for his son’s every need. Then one day, as they pass another man on the road, the boy shouts out: “Have you seen my father?” Just as this boy does not realize that he is being cared for by his father every moment of every day, we also have come to take for granted the care we receive from our Father. We are so accustomed to the miracle of breathing, of thinking, of seeing, of eating…that we no longer even view them as miracles. Similarly, we no longer appreciate our freedom.
When Moshe asks Pharaoh to the let the Jews leave Mitzrayim, he says “Thus says Hashem: Let My people go — and they will serve Me.” Although somewhat underscored in the popular retelling of the Pesach narrative, the service of Hashem was the sole reason for the freedom of the Jewish people, for without purpose, freedom is no better than enslavement. Therefore, I assert that this year, rather than thinking of freedom from the perspective of what the Jewish people are free “from,” consider what the Jewish people are free “to.” While it is true that becoming free from the endless suffering at the hands of a tyrant is crucial to the Jewish experience of Pesach, it is also necessary to look toward the future with a connection to the purpose, the essence of our freedom; the service of Hashem.