Parashat Re'eh: Freedom above all

Deut. 16:1: You shall observe the month of springtime, and you shall perform the Passover sacrifice to the Lord your God.

Sunset 370 (photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artfram)
Sunset 370
(photo credit: Israel Weiss ([email protected]) http://artfram)
Our text seems to connect the festival of Passover to the spring climate in Israel. And indeed Rashi, whose commentary most represents the interpretation of the talmudic Sages, cites the midrash that if the Sanhedrin sees that the calendar for that year will place Passover before the ripening of the barley grain – that is, before the arrival of spring – the Sages add an extra month of Adar before the month of Nisan, thereby creating a leap year of 13 months. Apparently it is crucial to link Passover with springtime. Why? Allow me to ask another question, the answer to which I believe will also help us understand the link between Passover and spring. The narrative of the Decalogue, God’s revelation at Mount Sinai, is repeated in the Bible. It appears for the first time in the Book of Exodus (Parshat Yitro) and the second time in the Book of Deuteronomy (Parshat Va’et’hanan).
The two versions of the Ten Utterances are almost identical, but for one notable exception: In the first version, the reason for mandating our Shabbat rest is “because in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the seas and everything within them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:11).
However, in the second version, the reason for Shabbat is very different: “The seventh day shall be a Sabbath unto the Lord your God, in order that your gentile servants may rest like you, and so that you remember that you were slaves in the Land of Egypt and that the Lord your God took you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:14, 15).
Why two different reasons, which seem so totally disconnected? And when we sanctify Shabbat at home over wine each Friday evening, we also mention these two disparate reasons: Shabbat as a reminder of the creation of the world and Shabbat as a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt. Will the real reason for Shabbat please stand up? In order to understand this, we must attempt to identify and analyze the two most seminal events of the Bible, which are iterated and reiterated within our tradition and within the fabric of our festivals: the Divine act of creation and the Divine emancipation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.
The world was created on the 25th day of the month of Elul, so that Rosh Hashana – which falls on the first day of Tishrei – is the day on which Adam, the first human being, was created. As we say in the Rosh Hashana Amida prayer, “Today the world [the first human being] was conceived.” And the festival of Passover, which celebrates our exodus from Egypt, demands that “every human being must feel as though he himself was now freed from Egyptian slavery.”
The biblical account has it that the human being was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), which means, first and foremost, that human beings – alone among the creatures of the world – have free choice and the ability to change – to change themselves, and even to change the world. (See the Aleinu prayer: “to perfect the world in the kingship of the Divine.”) A slave cannot choose, and a slave cannot change; a slave is neither the master of his time nor the master of his fate. Slavery is a downward reversal of God’s creation of the human being in His image; slavery is a form of death, because it makes a mockery of the Divine portion with which every human being is endowed at birth. Passover is the necessary corollary to Rosh Hashana: The person created by God in His image has the inalienable right to be free. The splitting of the Re(e)d Sea expressed the triumph of the God of creation over the Pharaoh of enslavement.
Hence, the Judeans of Masada committed suicide rather than submit to Roman slavery, crying out many centuries before Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death!” The American Revolution, inspired by the biblical Exodus, was founded upon Benjamin Franklin’s sage words, “Rebellion against tyranny is obedience to God.”
If slavery is a form of death, then freedom may be seen as an act of rebirth. And hence the necessity that the festival of Passover fall during the springtime – the period of rebirth of all of nature. (See Exodus 34:18-22, which links together the spring, Passover, the firstborn of the animals and the ripening of the grain.) Democracy, although a meritorious method of polity, is not the end goal. Remember that Hitler and Hamas were democratically elected. Freedom and security for every citizen is the end goal. A world of peace and freedom, not power and jihad, is the world that Judaism desires humanity to recreate. We dare not lose faith in the initial motivation and the ultimate potential of the Arab Spring.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.