THE BLOG
05/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Passover 2010: Liberation Is Why Pesach Matters

Passover is the single most widely observed Jewish practice in the world, and if you stop to think about it, that really makes sense. Passover is a roadmap to liberation, both personal and global, and who doesn't want, and deserve, to be free? At the end of the day that's what Pesach is all about - the fact that each of us deserves to be liberated from what whatever Egypt in which we find ourselves. And we all have at least one.

The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which translates as "tight spot". For some it may be the tight spot of political oppression while for others it may be the jams in which we find ourselves more personally. But whatever one's Egypt, Passover is the celebration of getting out, or at least beginning to.

Now there as many ways to celebrate Passover as there are people who want to do so. While I am now an Orthodox rabbi, growing up, I was anything but. Our family's observance of the holiday included bacon cheeseburgers...from which we removed the bun. Hardly a traditional way (both pork and mixing meat with dairy are classic no-no's) to observe the tradition of not eating bread and leavened products during the holiday, but it was no less meaningful and powerful than my current practice.

So why the changes? That's for another time. My point here is that after observing the same holiday many different ways, I know two things. First, each of us has to find a path to liberation that works for us. Second, there are four basic themes which seem to run through all of them as far as Passover is concerned, and all four are appropriate to each of us - Jew or Gentile, deep believer or ardent atheist.

Passover matters because it provides a kind of compass for freeing one's self and for freeing others also. Whoever seeks liberation, from whatever burdens them, those about whom they care, and our world, these four Passover principles are for you.

Principle One: Passover celebrates expanding our orbit of empathy. While we all have our limits (compassion fatigue is real), the story of the liberation of the Israelites begins with a God who hears the call of those in need.

The God of that story took hundreds of years to hear that call, and in extending concern to the Israelites inflicted much pain on the Egyptians, so clearly the expansion of empathy is a slow and imperfect process. Like God's, our empathy may not be limitless or perfect, but liberation demands that it be expanding.

Principle two: Questioning is the key to staying free. The Passover Seder, however observed, is defined by the raising of questions. In fact, according to tradition, the more questions raised the better. The answers, as is so often the case when it comes to the really big stuff, are not as central as the importance of continuing to question.

In many ways, the Passover Seder reminds us that while answers make life manageable, our questions make life meaningful. Our questions, and the ability to share them, are what mark us as truly free.

Principle three: Liberation, like any form of empowerment done ethically, demands obligation. Whatever we mean by being free, if being free doesn't evoke greater accountability and carry us beyond our own personal well being, we are not fully free.

We may experience accountability to some supernatural power, to a community, or simply to another human being. But being liberated is about not only the coercive shackles from which we are freed, but also about the willing assumption of obligation to others which our new freedom allows.

And finally, Passover matters because it reminds us that we should never go it alone, and we don't need to. From an ancient story in which the good folk and the bad, the saints and the sinners, were all liberated together, to a holiday whose central ritual, the Seder dinner, brings people together around a shared table, we figure out how to make friends with our family and make a family out of our friends.

This is the season of liberation and with these four points on your compass, I wish us all the very best on our journey to the liberation we seek and to which each of us, and our world, in entitled.