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The Why and How of Freedom: The Enduring Message of Passover

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For Jews, the exodus from Egypt is the paradigmatic freedom story for all generations.

In the Book of Exodus, Moses tells the Israelites to "remember this day on which you went out from Egypt, from the house of bondage, how Adonai freed you from it with a mighty hand. ... You go free on this day, in the month of Aviv..." (Exodus 13:3-4).

One can read the repetition of the words "this day" to imply that the Exodus took place at a specific moment in the past, but that the possibility of redemption -- communal or personal -- is also always available "this day."

But this leads to an interesting challenge in verse 14: "And tomorrow, when your child asks you [about the Exodus] ... You shall say, 'It was with a mighty hand that Adonai brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.'"

While every parent knows that a child can be forgetful ("Where is your sweater? I forgot it at school.''), would a child really forget about the Exodus the day after it happened?

The rabbinic commentary, Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, addresses this question by saying that "[t]here is a tomorrow now, and there is a tomorrow at a later date." In other words, when the scriptures talk about "tomorrow," they are not necessarily speaking literally about the day after today, but perhaps metaphorically about the future.

This interpretation invites us to think carefully about our relationship to the future. When we think about planning for "tomorrow," it matters which "tomorrow" we're talking about. As psychologist Daniel Glibert notes in his book "Stumbling on Happiness":

Whereas the near future is finely detailed, the far future is blurry and smooth. For example, when young couples are asked to say what they think of when they envision "getting married," those couples who are a month away from the event...envision marriage in fairly abstract and blurry ways...such as "making a serious commitment."...But couples who are getting married the next day envision marriage's concrete details, offering descriptions such as "having pictures made" or "wearing a special outfit."...

When we think of events in the distant past or distant future, we tend to think abstractly about why they happened or will happen, but when we think of events in the near past or near future we tend to think concretely about how they happened or will happen... (Gilbert, 116)

While Passover foreshadows our ultimate redemption -- a time when we will live in a world of peace and justice -- that vision is especially blurry. So our challenge is to begin transforming the "why" into the "how" -- turning the abstract into the concrete, actualizing the message of Passover today.

The problem is that the "why" is often much more compelling than the "how." With bills to pay, children to carpool, and the day-to-day minutiae of life, working for justice and peace can feel overwhelming.

And Gilbert helps us understand this challenge:

[When our sister asks if we can] babysit the nephews and nieces next month...we look forward to the obligation even as we jot it in our diary. [But] then, when it actually comes time to buy the Happy Meal [lunches], set up the Barbie playset, and [try to] ignore the fact that the NBA playoffs are on, we wonder what in the world we were thinking when we said yes. Well, here's what we were thinking: [we tend to see] baby-sitting next month [as] an "act of love"... [but] baby-sitting right now [as] an "act of lunch." (Gilbert, 117)

But what we so often forget is that in fact, "acts of love" mostly consist of "acts of lunch." It is often hard enough to simply imagine what kind of world we want to create; it is even harder to take the steps to do it.

And that's why productivity expert David Allen focuses so much attention on concrete next steps. As he explains, if you want to write thank you notes, that's fine, as long as you have pen and cards. But if you don't have the cards, you'll avoid doing it (see "Willpower," p. 79). Goals are critical, but execution is where the rubber meets the road.

To take a particularly moving contemporary example, faith leaders recently engaged in a powerful campaign, protesting Village Voice Media due to the sex-trafficking of minors that has taken place on its subsidiary, www.backpage.com. By collecting 250,000 signatures and calling upon Village Voice Media to shut down the adult section of backpage.com, these religious leaders concretized the message of the Exodus, pursuing freedom for all those young people enslaved by the Pharaohs of this despicable industry.

WATCH Faith Leaders Rally Against Sex-Trafficking:

So, too, do we on this Passover have an opportunity -- and responsibility -- to hold in our hearts and minds a grand vision of justice and peace, and to move from the general to the specific, from the abstract to the concrete.

As the famous Passover song Dayenu reminds us, we must mark our journey from slavery to freedom step by step, turning our "tomorrow at a later date" into our "tomorrow now."

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.