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Defining Freedom

Friday, 8 April, 2011 - 11:22 am

Pesach is known as Z’man Cheruteinu—the festival of our liberation or freedom. We Jews have celebrated this festival of freedom under varying circumstances. Jews under the Spanish Inquisition, had to mark their “freedom” in a secret cellar and even then many were caught and burnt publicly. Jews in Auschwitz and other concentration camps risked their lives to gather and “celebrate their freedom.” Jews that lived in perpetual fear under the Soviet boot held clandestine Seders to observe the festival of their “freedom."

Yet, whether it was a Russian Jew substituting four glasses of tea and three sugar cubes for wine and Matzah, a Jew is Auschwitz using a few scraps of potatoes and memories of home, or a 21st century Jew enjoying four cups of expensive wine and the best Shmurah Matzah available for purchase, all declare equally their state of freedom and liberation at the Seder.

To explain this apparent paradox we must define what enslavement and freedom truly are. What exactly took place on the 15th day of Nissan over 3300 years ago that dramatically transformed us into intrinsically free people?

Chassidism teaches that Mitzrayim - Egypt - is not just a geographical location but rather also a state of mind and being. Indeed the enslavement of our ancestors in Egypt was in a spiritual sense as well as physical. The children of Israel were steeped in the Egyptian culture of idolatry and immorality. They were slaves to Egyptian society as much as to the Egyptian taskmasters. Liberation from Egypt, it follows, was also freedom from the spiritual slavery.

When G-d liberated us from Egypt He brought us to Sinai, gave us the Torah & Mitzvot and made us His people, thereby effectively imbuing us with an intrinsic sense of freedom stemming from our relationship with Him. From that moment onward, the Jewish people cannot be subject to true enslavement by another nation. As the Yiddish saying goes, “der guf ken farshikt veren in Golus, ober di Neshama ken men nisht farshiken in Golus. - Our bodies can be sent into exile, but the soul can never be subjugated.” As such, no matter what type of persecution is perpetrated upon us, the freedom that dwells within the soul of the Jew cannot be taken away. It is this inherent freedom that is celebrated on Pesach irrespective of current external circumstances.

There is, however, one possibility for eliminating this freedom. The only ones with the power to do so is we ourselves.
Philosophers define freedom as the uninhibited ability to reach one’s potential. As such it means different things for different beings. For a plant, freedom is the lack of restriction on the circumstances that enhance its ability to grow. For an animal, freedom is the absence of restrictions on movement. For a human being, however, unrestricted growth and movement are not yet true freedom. For a human, freedom has much more depth. Human freedom is connected to intellectual development. When human beings restrict their intellect to the pursuit of petty animalistic indulgences, they are robbing themselves of their freedom.

As mentioned, a Jew’s freedom is connected to a relationship with G-d through the Torah that was given at Sinai and the Mitzvot contained within it. When Jews choose to live a life that is not devoted to this goal, they strip themselves of the inherent freedom that was gifted to them by G-d.

Pesach, especially for those of us that do not live in times or places of persecution, is an ideal opportunity to honestly examine how “free” we really are. Do we tap into the infinite potential of a relationship with G-d via Torah and Mitzvot, or do we waste our time on slavish pursuits? Are we prisoners of society and our desire to “fit in” and be like everyone else, when we should be concentrating on accessing our inherent freedom by allowing our souls to dictate the direction of our lives?

Let us spend this Pesach reflecting on our appreciation of the physical freedom which we are afforded and the spiritual freedom that should result. Let us commit ourselves to becoming a truly free people as evidenced by our dedication to the fulfillment of G-d’s infinite will, which is expressed in the Torah. In doing so we will experience the real freedom that became an inseparable part of our nation’s psyche over 3300 years ago. 

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