Are we truly free?

A contemporary look at one of Passover’s central themes.

April 12, 2019 03:56
4 minute read.
FREEDOM, IN the Jewish sense, is not simply the opposite of being imprisoned

FREEDOM, IN the Jewish sense, is not simply the opposite of being imprisoned, but rather requires an analysis of a combination of factors, each one different for every individual and every time and place. (photo credit: REUTERS)

One of the more well-known discussion points during the Passover Seder relates to the opening passage, where it is written in Aramaic, “Here is the bread of the afflicted,” referring to the matzah at the center of the Passover table. 

With these words, the leader of the Seder announces to the gathered that this is the bread which our forefathers ate in Egypt, and that all are invited to partake in this glimpse into our collective national history. 

Later on in the paragraph it is written, “This year we are slaves but next year we will be a free people.”

This teaching seems quite out of place in relation to what we know to be the overall theme of the Seder and the holiday of Passover in general.

If we are saying that we are still slaves, then how can we say that this is the holiday of freedom and that the purpose of the gathering is to celebrate our independence while recalling a slavery we were taught was in the past?

The answer, as with many or even most things in Judaism, is that freedom is not a black-and-white issue. Freedom, in the Jewish sense, is not simply the opposite of being imprisoned, but rather requires an analysis of a combination of factors, each one different for every individual and every time and place.

The fact that we as Jews can live in the Jewish State of Israel provides me with a sense that we are actually free, perhaps unlike any other period in human history. Certainly we continue to face threats and dangers, but the ability to dictate our own destiny is perhaps the ultimate reflection of what it should mean to be free.

Just a century ago, many of our ancestors were living under regimes when physical freedom was a distant dream. Violent pogroms were a constant fear, and the winds of a war that would destroy millions of our fellow Jews were already underway. In more recent decades, and indeed until today, Jews living under Muslim regimes were being treated with the same hatred, and they fear for their very existence.

But the reality is that even those who feel physically free are not truly free, and those who are imprisoned might feel greater liberty than all of us.

WE KNOW of countless stories of Jews who went proudly and honorably to their deaths under the Nazis. They were certainly not proud because they were forced to die under a regime that hated them. They were proud, and in a sense free, because they understood that to die because of our faith is something deserving of enormous praise. So it is of course deeply ironic that in the harshest of conditions and the darkest of places, there were Jews who felt free.

At the same time, there are many of us living in harmony and under conditions that could be described only as free, but we are personally conflicted or even trapped – whether it be by emotional, practical, financial, or most often, cultural and social constraints. 

So here too true freedom remains elusive.

The story of Passover is another example in our Jewish history that achieving freedom is not about realizing an absolute truth, but a process that begins the day we are born and will only end the day we die.

Certain aspects of achieving that freedom are beyond our immediate control. We cannot singularly impact on geopolitics or remove barriers that impede our movement. The existence of enemies who limit our liberties is a painful reality that will likely remain for many years to come. 

But when it comes to our personal and social sense of being restricted, there are changes that we can and must make.

Over the past few weeks in Israel we have been trapped in an election process that was largely defined by personal attacks, ridicule and spin. With that hopefully behind us (at least for now), we deserve to place our attention as a country on issues that can give us that sense of national and personal freedom.

There are real and critical issues that need fixing in our Jewish society that are literally depriving us of the liberties we need to succeed and thrive as a people.

Issues like control over some of our most beloved Jewish rituals – such as marriage, divorce, kashrut, and even how Shabbat is observed – were once free of political constraints and were symbols of our freedom. Today, sadly, just the opposite is true. Too many Jews, both inside Israel and out, are forced to recognize that our beloved Judaism has been hijacked by a small minority.

Torah Judaism deserves to be accessible by all Jews – even those who might think and act differently. 

Restoring that freedom of connection with Judaism is our ultimate responsibility – and challenge – as a generation.

But perhaps if we commit ourselves to making it the reality, then next year we will be that much closer to being truly free.

The writer is the chair and founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.

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