Free…but What to Be?
It comes with profound gratitude to Rabbi House of Maxwell House Haggadah fame that I offer some commentary on Passover. “Avadim hayenu…we were once slaves in Egypt, but Hashem our God took us out;” now let’s eat. There are many ways to study Pesach, but I would like to explore its themes of freedom. What does it mean to be free and how can we in modern day society actually see ourselves as personally leaving Egypt (yes, folks, it is one of the mitzvot of Passover)?
The slave part of the story is relatively simple. We recall the back-breaking labor forced upon us in Egypt and dip into salty tears of painful memory. We construct a mortar-paste haroset, a cement glob whose thick taste lingers as a reminder of hot brick building and laying. Yet, at the same time, we acknowledge that we made it out of Egypt and have “freedom.” We recline as we eat – a luxury afforded only to free people. We even have the chutzpah to eat the pascal lamb, an in-your-face shot at the Egyptians and their deity. And so, we were slaves and now we are free. We are free FROM slavery; but FOR WHAT are we free?
The Haggadah gives us a lot of hints about how we might exercise this freedom. The pesach, matzoh and maror are featured and discussed in term of their dual slave/freedom representations. After discussing these basic parts of the Seder, we leave behind our slavery and idol-worshiping ways and focus exclusively on freedom. Yet freedom in and of itself has no intrinsic value, per se; rather, its value is extrinsic, accruing based solely on what is done with it. So, what is the purpose of the Seder, and the freedom discovered therein? Is it that we are free to eat popcorn and binge Netflix? Probably not! The Haggadah pauses and says, “Therefore, l’fekach anachnu hayavim l’hodot, we thank God. Yes, we are brought out of Egypt to be free, but we are free to appreciate the Omnipresent and His dominion over the world. We acknowledge that our freedom is on account of God, and in turn, we sing praise. Ritually speaking, we sing Hallel.
At the Seder, we are free to sing. Our family favorite is echad mi yodeah. “Who knows one…I know ONE.” One is Hashem. So how can I, today, see myself participating in the Egyptian exodus, from slavery to freedom? The answer is now clear. See the event as being at the hand of God. Once we have this appreciation, we are grateful for our freedom. But while in Egypt we were slaves to serve Pharoh, today we are free to serve the Creator. Recognizing this as the source of our freedom today can connect us to the actual physical exodus from Egypt.
Let’s look at matzah. The Talmud says that people who eat chametz on Passover (and reject matzah) receive koret – a sort of spiritual death. What is it about matzah that is so fundamental to our religion and peoplehood…and what does it have to say about freedom? The matzoh is basic. It tells us that eating is basic, too. That is, while animalistic activities like eating matter, they should not define us. Eating fuels the body to be sure, but the simplicity of the matzah tells us that there is more to us than the body. We are being chosen to be a light unto the nations and are being asked to use our freedom to control our animalistic instincts.* Caring about matzoh (i.e., not caring about chametz) reflects an understanding of and interest in the soul, and a connection to a greater source. Someone who rejects matzah is walking away from this opportunity; he is forsaking the chance to elevate himself. And after all, after leaving the hardships of Egypt, we are free to choose. We can choose the material pursuit of eating for its own sake or we can push even food and other physical limitations aside in favor of the soul.
Let’s go further. So, Pesach made us free; we are intent to be a free servant of God. The generation leaving Egypt had no clue how to serve and so were forced to wander the desert for 40 years. During that time, the generation having been freed from slavery was now ready to serve their Master. But how to serve? Enter Shavuot. Shavuot and the giving of the Torah provided the playbook of how to “praise, laud, glorify, extol, honor, bless, exalt and revere Him… (Rabbi House).”
Interestingly, Shavuot is dependent on Pesach – its calendar and dates are dependent on Pesach. In this way, it is only as we achieve the true freedom from the Egyptian exodus that we are fit to receive the Torah. And as the Mishnah says in Pirkei Avot, “There is no one as free as he who is occupied with the study of Torah.”
* The “free spirit” that does whatever he or she desires is a slave to temptation. Consider anger: someone who loses his temper (NOT I, of course) is a slave to anger. Which is why we say I “lost” my temper, because you lost control, you were not in control; your temper had control over you, and you were enslaved by your temper. We may think we are free but animalistic traits can drag down our higher spiritual capacity.
Freedom is not the ability to do whatever we want at any given moment; rather it is the luxury to do what is right in answer to the calling, “בכל דור ודור חײב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרם”-“In every generation we have to consider it as though we ourselves left Egypt”.
Wexner Heritage Alum Jorde Nathan (Chicago I-99,) is a former Managing Director of Lehman Brothers responsible for trading, syndicating and managing risks of distressed and par debt positions. He currently focuses on managing private portfolios and pursuing investments generally involving the US, China and Israel. Jorde is the immediate past chair of the FIDF Midwest and serves on its national board. Since 2012, Jorde has been learning full-time and has focused on Talmudic themes and the commentary of the Maharal from Prague. Jorde and Helene live in Chicago and he can be reached here.