From freedom to independence and back again
For most peoples the Festival of Spring is a festival of liberty. But it is remarkable that with these peoples, it is not human beings, not the nation, but a deity who is liberated. For non-Jews the Festival of Spring — the resurrection of the deity —symbolizes the Spring, the revival of life.
Only the Jews, in their national consciousness, have dared to connect the liberation of nature with the liberation of the nation, with the exodus from Egypt. Only the Jews, in their cosmic world egoism, have known how to transform the Festival of Spring into the Festival of Freedom.
— Ber Borochov 1913
As these thoughts are gathered and written, we are sitting in the time between Pesach and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It is a good time to reflect on these two holidays together.
The events of the seders are still fresh in our memory. We blessed and drank in our celebration. But each part of the celebration was tempered. We blessed bread but ate matzah. Our parsley was dipped in salt water, the charoset mixed with maror. At the height of our celebration of freedom, we diminished our joy with spilling out 10 drops of wine as we remembered the pain the plagues brought to those who had enslaved us.
And when we sought to answer the four questions, we began by lifting the matzah and declaring “Ha lachma anya.” Here is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. We announce that we are partaking of this bread of slavery and inviting all who are hungry to join us and celebrate this Feast of Freedom with us. Today it isn’t easy to translate the Aramaic “anya.” It captures many meanings — poverty, oppression, humiliation. Today it does not flow easily from our mouths, but we recite Ha lachma anya in Aramaic because that was the language of the street at the time the Haggadah first was compiled. It is not a mistake, but a conscious decision to ensure that everyone would understand the invitation, and in understanding, become a part of our saga.
The final four words of this passage — L’shana ha’ba’ah bnai chorin, Next year as the children of freedom — are as carefully chosen to be in Hebrew. These words of promise and hope can be only in our own native tongue, the language of a free people.
And we continue the saga and the explanation with “Avadim hayinu,” that we had been slaves. Indeed, our obligation is to recall that particular slavery as if we ourselves personally had experienced the darkness of bondage and only then enjoyed the light of freedom. Our clans left Egypt and became a people at Mount Sinai. It is a special feature of our heritage that our national emergence is a story of transformation and liberation. And therefore we are called upon to celebrate it as a personal emergence and with a special consciousness: “All who are hungry, let them come and eat.” We too had been slaves. It is our obligation to bear the awareness of the meaning of hunger, misery, subjugation, and humiliation, even as we celebrate our triumph in our struggle for freedom.
As part of his thoughts about Pesach, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reflected upon the meaning of slavery. “What is slavery, deep down? Simply put, slaves exist to fulfill the needs and commands of others, with no possibility for choice or expression of their own. Their owners do not acknowledge that slaves have their own dreams and desires…. Slavery involves taking a person, who is an end unto him or herself, and making that person a means to another’s ends. In that respect, slavery is not a historical curiosity: even without whips or chains, today, from the traffic in women, to migrant labor, to all kinds of oppressive social relations — sadly, the idea of slavery, even if not called that, is still very much with us.” While beautifully expressed, this reflection on the holiday is not unique. Like others similar to it, it already embeds an important expansion. Rabbi Heschel is not thinking only of Jewish liberation. He is thinking broadly of human liberation. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan follows the same line of thought when he said, “Freedom means more than broken chains. It means liberation from all those enslavements that warp the spirit and blight the mind, that destroy the soul even though they leave the flesh alive. Peoples suffer, nations struggle to make this dream of freedom come true. Pesach calls upon us to dedicate ourselves to the struggle for freedom. Though the sacrifice be great and the hardships many, we must not rest until the many different chains that enslave all men are broken.”
Pesach celebrates our exodus from Egypt, the historical event that gave 12 disparate tribes a national identity. It was the first step to the first Jewish state. Yom Ha’atzmaut is the celebration of the creation of the modern State of Israel. It too is a celebration of a transformation. It is the realization of the hope of two thousand years; a movement of the Jewish people from being persecuted and stateless to being a free people in their homeland. And with that new condition come new privileges and new responsibilities. We remember as if we ourselves were slaves and we personally were redeemed. We can trace that 2,000-year-old journey through time, and we can trace it through a month of memorial and holy days.
We start with Pesach, which is followed closely by Yom Ha’shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, when we light candles, remember with reverence and love those who perished, and declare “never again.” But for whose sake do we declare that oath? Is it that we swear that we won’t allow it to happen to us again? Or have we accepted the burden of a free people, as defined by both Heschel and Kaplan? Instead, do we proclaim our role to defend all others from such a fate as well?
Not too long after the memorial candles’ wicks burn down and the flames flicker to their end, we again remember the fallen. This time it is the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who have died creating the state and defending its citizens for 68 years. It is understood that we will not be able to celebrate our independence on Yom Ha’atzmaut with full hearts without taking a breath to remember those whose lives were snuffed out like last week’s candles so that we can in fact be free to celebrate. And celebrate we must, for our travels from slavery to freedom, across 2,000 years and countless countries, was a long and painful road. A road filled with persecution, pogroms, the Crusades, and the Inquisition (just to mention a few). The difficult road taught us to value our independence and our freedom.
But did it teach us how to live as a free people? Was it up to the task that the 40 years in the desert provided our ancestors?
With all the lessons taught and with all the history lived and learned, with all the tempering of our celebrations, with all the lessons of the spilled wine over plagues, the charoset with just a dash of maror, and the salt water of our tears, are we looking at only one side of the “never again” coin?
Today’s celebrations, well-earned and well deserved, present challenges both to American Jews and to Israelis. The overwhelming majority of us here have not experienced the tragedies of persecution. Have we grown so comfortable in our democratic home that we have lost touch with the extraordinary transformation the Third Jewish Commonwealth brought to the Jewish condition? Or, with that understanding, have we turned our eyes away from the sometimes vile acts of some of our kinsman in our homeland? In full awareness of the remarkable achievements connected with the creation of the State of Israel, we must separate our excitement with the national renewal from a destructive chauvinism, lest we become ensnared and enslaved by a blind and callous zeal. The Four Sons live, and we can only hope that the Wicked Child, the one who hasn’t learned the lessons of our history, who did not receive the teachings of the fathers from his father, will not prevail. May there still be enough of us who will work to ensure that our own zeal does not lead us to become the taskmasters. Our consciousness should guide us, with a desire to be neither victim nor oppressor.
This Yom Ha’atzmaut, let us celebrate the hope, HaTikvah, that this finally may be the season that sees the people of Israel and its neighbors pass over from bloodshed to normalcy. May the barriers of enmity and isolation, distrust and fear, give way to cooperation and understanding.
Then we will be able to celebrate not only our independence but our true freedom.
Next year in Jerusalem. Next year Jerusalem and both her peoples, in peace.