The very first Seder was celebrated while we were still slaves in Egypt. How could we have celebrated the festival of our freedom before we left Egypt? Was this not jumping the gun?
The still-enslaved Jewish people were able to mark our freedom because we had reached a point where nothing could stop us. We had broken through the shackles of our physical servitude to be motivated by something higher. The miracles and the plagues had unfolded before our eyes building our faith and trust in G-d. We celebrated the potential of what we could achieve. Through this inner growth and recognition, we were no longer slaves.
The human mind and spirit cannot be enslaved. Buddha says, “No one outside ourselves can rule us inwardly. When we know this, we become free.”
This is a lesson for life that is particularly meaningful this Pesach. In our current isolating and difficult times, we may feel incapacitated with the loss of our ‘freedom.’ Exactly in this time we should remember that each of us is free to make the choices that can set us free.
We may not have our physical freedom at the moment – but that is only a portion of true freedom. Dr Victor Frankl suffered for four years in concentration camps. He describes how everything was taken from him, except his ability to choose how to respond to his life circumstances. He got through grueling work each day knowing that there would be a beautiful sunset to enjoy at the end of each day. He found something to look forward to each day that could not be taken away from him. This gave him hope. Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Now, in lockdown we are finding that every day is the same. How do we use our time? Will we waste it or do something with it? This is the moment to seize our freedom. What choices will we make with what is in our control? We cannot control the Coronavirus or the social distancing rules, but we can control our attitude and how we show up each day to exist within these rules. When speaking about freedom, Frankl said, “To be free means not only to be different, but also to be able to become different, that is, to change.”
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks about using our time in lockdown to examine how we show up in the world, as an “I” or a “We”. He writes, “There was a shift in emphasis in society from ‘I’ to ‘we’. One of the greatest challenges in free societies is to maintain a balance between the ‘I’ of self-interest and the ‘We’ of the common good. We must be able to compete but also to co-operate. There is within each of us an ‘I’ that asks: ‘What’s in it for me?’ But there is also a ‘we’ that knows that ‘we are all in this together’.” Now is the time for us to find a better balance between the “I” and the “We”.
Personally, I have been working to find new ways to contribute to the ‘we’ while facing the professional challenges that this health crisis has brought. The lockdown has meant that I cannot care for my clients in the one-on-one sessions that I love. I miss the face to face physical presence with them. I have used the time to adjust to online ZOOM inspirational lecturing and counseling. This has brought challenges as I navigate this new territory. But it has also brought new opportunities, as I can reach many people who ordinarily would not have been able to attend my classes or sessions.
I have been inspired by joining a group of dedicated practitioners committed to sharing our expertise with the outside world. This group, called THRIVE, was started by Jordan Polevoy three weeks ago with a mission to serve people in the most dedicated, positive and nurturing way. He has created a sense of community within the isolation and given each of us volunteer teachers a sense of purpose and meaning to be a part of this thriving group. The result of all this giving is a nurtured community close on 800 members that is growing and growing each day. A website is about to be launched, and in the meantime feel free to start THRIV-ing with us, or join the Whatsapp group.
There is a beautiful play on words that is going around on social media. It says, “When ‘I’ is replaced by ‘WE’ even ‘ILLNESS’ becomes ‘WELLNESS’”.
I find this profound because even though we find ourselves behind closed doors, we do not have to be or feel isolated. This is what taking responsibility is all about. The word ‘responsibility’ means our ability to respond. To Frankl, freedom without responsibility was an oxymoron.
The question we should each ask ourselves is: “What will be my response to a collective experience that all of humanity is undergoing both together and apart?”
The following story illustrates how Frankl found his own response to this question. When he was a prisoner in the camps, after each gruelling workday he would visit inmates in the infirmary. Even though there were no medical supplies, and he barely had the strength for the visits, he went anyway. It gave him a sense of purpose and kept his medical mind alive. All he could really offer was a compassionate listening ear for the patients and an effort to nurture a sense of hope for their future. One day on his ‘rounds’ he spoke with a patient he had become close to. This man literally ‘lived’ for these visits. The patient disclosed that he had heard a rumour that Frankl was going to escape and begged him not to. Frankl had indeed planned to escape, and after this encounter he agonized about his decision. Should he escape and abandon this man, his ‘patient’, or should he stay and abandon his freedom? In the end, he decided not to escape. He describes an intense inner peace and sense of freedom that came over him once he had made his decision. Like our ancestors in Egypt, he gained a sense of freedom while still enslaved.
The Jews celebrated their first Pesach in Egypt because they saw the potential of what was to come. They built their faith and trust while they were still in Egypt, before they were physically free. Let us be inspired this year by the first Seder from our history, and our ancestors’ unstoppable commitment to leaving slavery behind. As we experience a Seder night that is different from all other Seder nights in our lifetime, let us leave behind that which keeps us enslaved and make choices that give us the ultimate feeling of freedom.