Every year as we approach Passover, the Jewish holiday which celebrates freedom, I struggle with the same question: what is the definition of freedom and how does it reveal itself in the context of the modern world in which we live? Deriving a suitable answer can be challenging, yet it is the objective of the entire holiday. On the one hand we are required to reflect upon the enslavement of our ancestors in Egypt, an event which transpired millennia ago and which should be foreign to us. On the other hand it is difficult for us to comprehend freedom in a world which inundates us with pressure and obligations.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the Torah obligates us on the seder night to impart the message of Passover and the Exodus by way of a story. Stories conjure our imagination, they encourage dramatic reenactment and they stimulate perspective. And so in preparation for Passover I would like to share the following personal experiences which I believe will help augment our comprehension of what Judaism calls freedom.
I offer lectures and classes on Judaism to secular kibbutzim and moshavim across the country. A few weeks ago I contacted a fellow who was in charge of cultural events at the secular moshav Tzur Natan, regarding my coming by to offer one of my presentations. He told me he was interested and asked me to call him back in a few days to further explore my proposal.
When I called him back two days later the fellow informed me that his mother had just died and he was thankful that I called, because he wanted to fulfill the traditional Jewish laws of mourning but was not sure how to do so and was in need of guidance. Bearing in mind that we had briefly spoken on the phone only once before and had actually never met, he explained how he did not know any rabbis and asked if I would assist as his rabbi, to which I agreed.
Two days later I called the man from Tzur Natan to inquire about his welfare.
He explained to me that he would be honored if I would deliver a class regarding Jewish unity on the seventh day of mourning, Shushan Purim, to honor the memory of his mother, and again I agreed.
And so this Shushan Purim I did not participate in my family’s traditional Purim meal in Jerusalem, because I went to Tzur Natan to deliver a message on Jewish unity to a group of secular Jews I was not acquainted with, to honor the memory of a woman I had never met, out of respect for a man I did not know.
The man from Tzur Natan frequently calls me to ask questions and discuss fundamentals of Judaism; I have become his confidant and last week after discussing a particular law pertaining to his mourning period he proclaimed, “Rabbi, I am glad that I have found someone who I feel comfortable enough to ask questions of. You have helped me achieve freedom.” Freedom from a Jewish perspective is not defined by a person’s physical status or financial security, it is a qualitative experience which even someone in mourning at the height of despair can derive greater understanding of by aspiring to a more purposeful existence.
This past Shabbat I was in Hispin attending the annual Shabbat with the Jewish Identity Branch of lecturers of the IDF, to which I belong. The Jewish Identity Branch of the IDF consists of a group of handpicked lecturers and educators who, regardless of their differences, all share the same objective: to infuse the soldiers with a sense of identity and purpose.
Our talks are void of anything which might be interpreted as religious coercion or political affiliation. Our words reveal our mission: to remind the soldiers of who they are and what they represent and to inspire them to believe that identifying with their past is key to preserving the Jewish people’s future.
I wait in anticipation for this Shabbat because it is the only time during the year, at least that I am aware of, when a most diverse crowd of Chabad Hassidim; haredim (ultra-Orthodox); Religious Zionists from the center of the country; settlers from the settlements along the West Bank; Sephardim and Ashkenazim, agree to put aside all of their differences and disagreements and congregate for one purpose and with one goal in mind.
No one is interested in discussing our differences nor does anyone show any sign of discomfort because of them.
Quite the contrary – each and every one of us is genuinely concerned with learning from one another and disclosing our successes and failures. One of the places I visit every week is an army prison in which a number of those imprisoned include haredi young men who refuse to serve in the army of a country and a government which they delegitimize.
I expressed my frustration to the group over Shabbat, and how difficult it was for me to offer a presentation which was meant to motivate and infuse the same principles of Zionism and idealism that some of these young men rejected in the first place; to me this represented a personal conflict of interest.
In response, one of the haredi lecturers who was listening to me advised that I should try to see beyond the outer appearances of these young men. After all, he explained, many of them were lost and were just looking for someone or something to give meaning to their lives.
He explained that in the end of the day these were young men who needed help and any hint of inspiration in their lives could potentially encourage them towards a more substantial life. Here I was being politely told by a haredi fellow that I should try to see beyond the periphery and that I should concentrate on the important task at hand.
I was reminded that this Shabbat we unite for the sake of furthering the mission of our organization. This one Shabbat our concerns and perspectives were the same. This one Shabbat we would focus upon the soldiers, their ideals and the awesome contributions they make to help ensure national security and what we could continue to do to infuse them with the strength to continue to do so. This one Shabbat we would be truly free; free of disparity, free of espousing political alignments, free of casting suspicions. This one Shabbat we would declare that we are free men graced with a shared objective and working towards a common ideology.
Jewish freedom is not defined by the man, it is distinguished by an objective and completed with intent. Jean-Paul Sartre said, “freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”; indeed, there is much to be done for the sake of our freedom and much more freedom to be had by all.
The author, a rabbi, serves as a lecturer for the IDF to help motivate troops and infuse them with Jewish identity. In addition he is currently involved in lecturing throughout Israel on the basics of Judaism for many secular kibbutzim and moshavim. He is a renowned guest lecturer for communities throughout the Diaspora. www.rabbihammer.com