Passover is surely the best remembered and longest kept holiday in Jewish life. Even after everything else is abandoned, those who are not religiously observant – and who have forgotten most of the holidays – still remember Passover and keep it in some form. In part, this may be because it is the first Jewish holiday; it was formed and celebrated long before all the others. Passover was first celebrated as the People of Israel were being freed from slavery, so that it was not just a memory but a living, active celebration.
More than three thousand years have passed since the first Passover night. Yet, Passover still lives on and evokes both nostalgic memories and some serious thinking. The heart of the holiday is, of course, the notion of freedom. We celebrate the end of Egyptian slavery and the start of a free Jewish nation. This is not only a Jewish national story; it is a story with universal appeal. Exile and redemption, suffering and deliverance, are essential components of the human condition. The story of Passover resonates the world over, whether for African Americans or for the Chinese in Taiwan.
Thus, Passover and its ceremonies carry a message that goes far beyond ritual. For some, this message is a question, for others a certainty beyond doubt: what is the meaning of freedom?
A slave who is released from slavery, a prisoner who escapes from prison: these are the most basic expressions of freedom; it is when one is no longer forced to act against one’s will. This surely is a part of freedom, but not all of it. There is more to freedom than merely not being shackled. A chair that is chained to a table does not become free when its chains are cut. History has proven again and again that the absence of a master does not make a slave free and the lack of an oppressor does not make the sufferer free. There are many who are no longer chained, but still cannot be called “free.”
Freedom must be coupled with desire, in order to have meaning. One must want to go somewhere or have a dream to fulfill. When there are no dreams, no wishes, no destination, the “free” person has no advantage over the slave or the oppressed. In other words: the most important part of freedom is inner freedom. A person or a nation that has no real notion of freedom, no real aspirations, will soon become slave to other masters. Indeed, the outcomes of many revolutions and wars of independence prove this. And on a far more mundane level, people with free time – and nothing that they want to do – soon sink into boredom, family fights, or worse.
Freedom, then, is not just a negative concept, the absence of servitude. Freedom also requires a positive value to replace slavery, a meaning beyond that of breaking the chains. Indeed, Passover is not just empty free time, without duties or commandments. Quite the contrary: its celebration involves many commandments, enactments and customs. That is because we need rules and regulations in order to celebrate freedom. Doing nothing – and equally, doing anything – is the definition not of freedom, but of despair. True freedom requires a worldview, hope, and a direction toward which the freed person goes.
The Book of Exodus describes the very first celebration of Passover as a series of Divine commandments: the Israelites are ordered to stay inside their homes and to prepare for moving on. The concept of freedom, then, is immediately intertwined with that of purpose. Something new and positive will come after the oppression of Egypt. It will fill the lives of the nascent Jewish nation and point to a new image of the future.
The centrality of purpose is true both for big movements to free oppressed people and for the individual. If the ex-prisoners use their broken chains only to beat one another, then freedom was not such a great gain. Throughout the world – from Africa to the heart of Europe – we keep seeing attempts at freedom that end up being failures and disasters. On the national and international level, we are surrounded by new regimes that are nothing but new ways of oppression.
The focus on purpose and meaning is just as important for the family and the individual: to see true freedom as the acceptance of those values which one really wants.