The story of Passover is nearly ubiquitous — Moses, with God’s help, freed the enslaved Israelites from the evil Pharaoh. Its redemptive theme has been deployed ad nauseam throughout history, even to this day, in the arts and archetypal tales. Our focus, however, on the heroic efforts of Moses, the plagues, and ultimate freedom from bondage overlooks the latter half of the story, which is just as important as the first: the gift of purpose.
The Israelites wandered the desert after escaping Egypt, ultimately questioning why they escaped one perilous situation for another. The “freedom” they had been given did not seem to provide the relief they had desired. Unbridled freedom, they realized, came with a price. A sense of meaninglessness and limbo prevailed. But efforts by Moses to empower the Israelites to fend off aggressors and God’s issuance of manna for sustenance served to encourage the Israelites to trust and follow the path. God, through Moses at Mt. Sinai, ultimately bestowed upon the Israelites a set of commandments that would serve as the foundational tenets upon which a society should be organized.
The commandments lay out a framework for worship and laws of governance. The commandments also require us to respect our parents, not to covet our neighbor, not to kill, among other things. We accept these commandments as elements of decent behavior exhibited by a typically functioning human being.
“Tough break,” one might say. “You’ve been freed from one set of harsh rules, just to be subject to another (albeit more reasonable, but detailed) set of rules.” What happened to freedom? Why couldn’t the Israelites develop a suis generis moral code and society of their own? A cynic might draw the lesson that God always planned for there to be a catch – a bait and switch. But I believe there is more to it than that.
The “Shema,” arguably Judaism’s most fundamental prayer, concludes with the verse, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I, the Lord, am your God.” Freedom, it seems, is not an end in and of itself. We are free from slavery and free for a purpose. That purpose, whether to raise a family, fight for social justice, or win Olympic medals, must be understood, grounded in sound morals, and pursued wholeheartedly. The freedom we have been granted is fragile and our time short. Without purpose, our freedom is both wasted and has the potential to lead us astray, down frivolous paths and into dangerous corners. It is with purpose that we find meaning, which is far more lasting and fulfilling than the fleeting happiness derived from an untethered soul. On this Passover, let us celebrate our freedom to pursue purpose and meaning. Let us celebrate the institutions we have built, grounded in natural principles, that provide us the power to live fruitfully and independently. And let us recognize those aspects of our world that yet require unshackling and improvement.