Passover, the festival of freedom: But are we free?
Friday night, Jews throughout the world sat down at the seder with friends, family, loved ones or, sadly in some cases, even alone, to retell, once again, the story of our people’s emergence from slavery to freedom, from oppression to being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, from bondage to a people with purpose. It is an amazing “happening” based on the renewal of our historic experience and the promise that the Exodus from Egypt represented to our ancestors, a nation of former slaves.
In the run up to the holiday, there have been ever so many lectures to prepare us to properly observe Passover. For example, last week I heard a talk on how we are supposed to sit during the seder where we are commanded to recline as free people would normally do. The discussion centered on examples of how free people sat in Rome, in medieval Europe or even in biblical times. And it struck me how odd it was to be spending time dealing with the minutiae of how to sit when all around us in the world there is chaos. Whether here in the Middle East where so many countries are in a state of total disarray if not actual meltdown, or in Europe which is being besieged by refugees fleeing the chaos in their respective lands, or in Africa where Boko Haram is kidnapping and killing with abandon, or in so many countries where human rights are barely acknowledged even in the breach. So are we really free?
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” Perhaps that describes us today, people who falsely believe that we are free in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Can we consider ourselves free if the world, just 61 years after the most devastating war in history that killed 56 million people in Europe and Asia is still at war with itself? Can we consider ourselves free, living in Israel, when, after 50 years, we are still unable to make peace with our neighbors, both in the historic land of Israel and the region? Can we consider ourselves free, as Jews, when anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head once again in Europe where just 60 years ago a third of our people were wiped off the face of the earth? Can we consider ourselves free, when throughout the world our enemies support a BDS movement whose basic goal, regardless of what is said publicly, is to eliminate Israel from the family of nations?
The answer of course is no, we are not free. We have freedom of choice, of course, and we have freedom to live as we please, but the promise of the Exodus has only been partially fulfilled. Because coupled with the obligations which we voluntarily accepted at Sinai, there was also the obligation for tikkun olam, the obligation to assist in repairing the world. And that task is not complete, even though we have many accomplishments of which to be proud,
Nelson Mandela said “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Clearly we have achieved the first part, but the second part of that statement still challenges us.
So how are we to sit at the seder? Do we sit as they did in Rome, lounging in a half prone position hoping someone will hold a cluster of grapes over our head so we can grasp them? Or do we sit as medieval royalty on a throne in the hope that someone will come to service all our needs? Or do we recognize the fact that our work is not yet done, that our freedom is not yet complete, and that even that portion of freedom that we enjoy today can be taken away from us in an instant?
As for me, I will sit as my Zaide (i.e., my grandfather) sat, on a comfortable chair, but erect, recognizing that at the seder table I am in God’s presence, who is the real royalty in the room, and that I am just His servant, respectful, grateful and in awe of the bounties that the good Lord has provided me. But concomitantly understanding that what I have is temporary and acting too much like a free man is simply that, an act, that flies in the face of reality.
Let us hope that this Passover will usher in a renewed desire for freedom throughout the world so that the promise of the Exodus can be fulfilled in its entirety. Chag kasher v’sameach.