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Pessah marks the freedom of Israel from slavery in Egypt and its birth as a free nation. It is called in our prayers "the season of our freedom." Leaning at the Seder table is a symbol of freedom; and the four cups of wine drunk at the Seder service correspond to four expressions of freedom used by the Torah representing four stages of freedom in the redemption of Israel.
There are different types of slavery; a slave mentality can be found even among the politically free.
The Jewish people who were subject to others for centuries are the only people to keep a religious festival in celebration of freedom. They celebrated Pessah at times when they were far from being physically free - in the ghettos, under the Inquisition, and even in the Nazi concentration camps.
Their celebration was, however, of an inner spiritual freedom rather than of physical freedom, and this spiritual freedom enabled them to outlive their oppressors.
In the Kovno ghetto during the Holocaust a rabbi was asked whether the blessing of the daily morning service "who has not made me a slave" should be omitted since it seemed a travesty to recite it when the Jews were worse than slaves to the Nazis. He replied that the intention of the benediction was to praise God for spiritual and not for physical liberty; they were therefore especially obliged to recite it to show their enemies that as a people they were spiritually free.
JUDAISM DOES not believe in freedom without restraint, but rather in freedom with responsibility. Undisciplined freedom degenerates into license and anarchy. There can be no liberty without law, and no freedom at the expense of the interests and well-being of others. Hillel's advice not to do to others what is hateful to oneself is a good guide to the limits of freedom acceptable in a civilized society.
Paradoxically, restraint brings more, and not less, freedom in its train. In any case, there is no such thing as absolute freedom in life. Nor is duty always compatible with freedom; more often than not the two cannot be reconciled.
Judaism calls upon the Jew to surrender his freedom to God and thereby attain a greater measure of freedom than would otherwise be possible.
ONE ASPECT of Pessah is that it directs our minds to the future. Traditionally it was believed to be the time of the future redemption, and that longing is symbolized by the cup of Elijah.
Our people has never given up hope of a better future. It is very significant that in spite of our travails in virtually every age that hope has never been entirely unjustified. The fact is that the Jews as a people still live and flourish today when great and powerful nations of the past are no more, and knowledge of them is confined to history books.
The existence of the Jews, seemingly against all the rules, is something of a miracle. However dark the clouds on the horizon, Pessah points to a better future not only for our people but also for mankind.
One lesson of Pessah, with its strict food limitations, is of much relevance today, especially in the Western world, in that it shows us that we need not be slaves to what we eat. It has often been said that one should eat to live, not live to eat. We are not obliged to partake of every novelty, of every type of junk food that comes our way. Judaism has always emphasized the religious and spiritual connotations associated with food by its requirements of kashrut and the recitation of benedictions before being permitted to eat and drink.
The sanctity of food is best seen at the Shabbat and Festival table, where the spiritual is combined with the physical. The stringent prohibitions of all forms and quantities of hametz on Pessah may be taken to suggest moderation and self-control over food - the most powerful of man's physical needs.
HERE IN Israel the celebration of Pessah differs from that of other countries. The most obvious difference is that Pessah is kept for seven days, whereas outside Israel it is kept for eight days. Every year since my wife and I have come to the Holy Land we have felt a thrill on eating hametz immediately after the seventh day, when Jews elsewhere are required to wait one day more.
It is true that those coming from other lands will probably miss having a second Seder, but perhaps that is made up by Israel having five days of Hol Hamoed instead of four, as in the Diaspora.
On Hol Hamoed, tefillin (phylacteries) are not worn in Israel. The reason is that outside Israel most people work during these days, and therefore tefillin are donned, as on a weekday. In Israel, however, the holiday spirit of Hol Hamoed is felt everywhere.
Schools are closed. Many people take their holidays at this time, or do only that which is absolutely necessary. Some take trips to explore the country, and families go out on picnics. Hence, like Shabbat and festivals, when tefillin are not worn, so too on Hol Hamoed we should be sufficiently conscious of our religious obligations not to need the reminder of tefillin.
Since we made aliya over seven years ago my wife and I like to go away from home to a hotel for Pessah. We are especially pleased to do this because we could never leave home for the festival when I was a congregational rabbi. Under these circumstances one does not have to prepare the house for Pessah or do Pessah shopping. In a wisely chosen hotel there is a festive atmosphere throughout the Festival, and rabbis are invited as scholars in residence to give lectures and shiurim.
We believe that it is indeed a blessing to be in the Holy Land for Pessah - an act of Jewish freedom if ever there was one. Only in Israel is it possible to feel so close a connection with our origins and with our ancestors of hundreds of years ago.
The writer was a scholar and United Synagogue minister in London and North-West England. He wrote this shortly before he died in Jerusalem on March 7, aged 72.