Defining Freedom For Jews

What is freedom? Ask anyone on the streets and they might define it as the ability to do what one wants. Others might say that it is the state of having full control of one's life. In the last year, the Jewish world has been offered several fascinating discussions on what it means to be Jewish and be "free." Whether this pertains to the right to circumcise one's son or to declaring one's break from the chassidic world on national television, the conversation on freedom is ever pertinent to the Jewish people.

In a few weeks, Jews throughout the United States will sit down at their seders and recount the Exodus from Egypt, the liberation of our ancestors from slavery. Living in the "land of the free" makes it all the more difficult for 21st century Jews to fully grasp this experience (in addition to the 3,000 years of history that separate us from the event), and yet the sages (already 1,500 years distant from Egypt) who compiled the haggadah insist that we must relate to the events of the Exodus as if we ourselves had experienced them. This is the meaning of Avadim Hayinu, the beginning of Maggid, the section that begins the response to the four questions.

With this in mind, many seder leaders use the poetry of Avadim Hayinu to open up a discussion on the meaning of freedom to each of the participants, perhaps giving each person an opportunity to explain how they view freedom.

A conversation on freedom can occur on many levels. Personal freedom is ever present in American minds, and therefore almost everyone can express some way in which they experience freedom. Only three generations away from the Holocaust and one generation away from the end of the Soviet Union, even the younger generation of Jews can connect to our political freedom and feel gratitude for being able to publicly celebrate a seder.

For all this talk of personal freedom, religious freedom, political freedom, etc., it is important not to forget the significance at Passover of spiritual freedom.

In Egypt, the Israelites were trapped by more than their taskmasters. Their enslavement ran far deeper than being forced to build store-cities and make bricks out of hay. The Egyptian sojourn of Jacob and his family, the Children of Israel, caused a deviation from the spiritual journey they were meant to be on in the land of Canaan, a journey begun by Abraham and Sarah. According to the sages, by the time Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, they were spiritually bereft and were distinguishable from the Egyptians only by their names, their language and their mode of dress. They knew they were Israelites. They knew they were different. They knew that their ancestors had a special relationship with God, but their understanding of this relationship was hazy -- blurred by the idolatrous and amoral society which surrounded them. This spiritual haze explains why, on several occasions after leaving Egypt, the Israelites demanded to return back to slavery.

Some commentators explain that what the people truly feared, both at the Sea of Reeds and in the Wilderness, was not death, but freedom! Suddenly they were responsible for their own decisions and their own actions. It was easy to live the Egyptian lifestyle, even if one was a slave. Being free means accepting absolute responsibility for one's own behavior, which also made one distinctly aware of how one's own actions effect the community.

When the Israelites left Egypt, they were led to Mount Sinai. Within two months (7 weeks, actually) of leaving the land of their oppressors, they were asked to accept the Torah, a complex, detailed, and, some might say, strict, set of laws that included numerous capital offenses. The sages refer to the holiday of Passover as zman chay'roo'tay'noo, the time of our freedom. In Ethics of The Fathers (6:2), Rabbi Joshua ben Levi says: "... And it says (Exodus 32:16): 'And the tablets are the work of God, and the writing is God's writing, engraved on the tablets.' Don't read the text as 'chah'rut' (engraved) but rather as 'chay'root' (liberty) -- for there is no free individual, except for one who occupies himself with the study of Torah..."

How can Torah observance be equated to freedom -- after all, don't we speak of the "yoke" of Torah and describe Torah as a "burden"?

One certainly might view the mitzvot as restrictive, unless it is understood that without structure and order in the world, without rules and boundaries, what remains is anarchy and chaos. In the 21st century, recognizing the benefits of the Torah's law is often made more difficult by the very freedom in which we live. In the quest for multi-cultural freedom, laws that have strengthened the Jewish people for thousands of years are cast aside as archaic and traditions that have enriched Jewish generations are denounced as irrelevant. Inherent in the Torah and in Jewish tradition, however, is a guideline for attaining spiritual freedom. Depending on each person, ths can be a long journey or a short one. In Judaism, the greatest importance is placed on continuing to grow and to learn.

In just a few weeks, Jews around the world will once again gather for sedarim. Some will following the path of their parents, sitting down with the same family year after year. Others will find new ways of celebrating the seder and new friends with whom to spend it. No matter where your seder is held, remember to take hold of the opportunity and discover the great freedom inherent in accepting the yoke of Torah.