One of the major themes and focuses of Pesach is the juxtaposition of freedom to slavery. What makes a slave? What makes a freeman? These are questions at the very heart of the holiday of Pesach. It is important, then, to think about what these words actually mean.
The prevailing conception of freedom seems to be rather distant from the truth. The modern Western definition of freedom tends towards something along the lines of “no restraints” or “without limitations.” It is sad to see so many with such a misconstrued notion of what freedom actually is. Surely a soldier enrolled in the army, living his every day by a strict set of regulations, would consider himself a proud, free man. Freedom cannot mean simply “without limitations.” Such a proposition is nonsensical.
What Slavery Means
When we talk about the Jewish nation moving from a state of avdus to cheirus, from slavery to freedom, what, then, do we mean?
Around this time of year a particular teacher of mine would always encourage his students to read Alex Haley’s Roots to get a real understanding of what it means to be a slave. Quite fortunately, most all of us reading this today have no concept of what slavery truly means. Perhaps those that endured the terrible pains of the Holocaust can better relate. For most, however, the closest thing we’ll get to slavery is a particularly harsh professor or boss.
At the end of the day, though, slavery can best be defined as a lack of self. A slave’s time isn’t his. A slave’s decisions are not his own. A slave possesses nothing at all. Every last part of a slave, from his actions down to his name (and possibly even thoughts) belongs to his master. A slave has no persona outside being an extension of his owner. For a slave, the word and concept “I” ceases to exist.
Today, all are subjected to painted images of society. We are shaped, molded, and programmed by the societies in which we are raised. Sometimes this is a positive thing, sometimes it is negative. But the fact of the matter cannot be denied. If we do not consciously consider our lives, we can very likely be subjected to values that are not ours. When looked at this way, very few are truly free. Few have deeply pondered the values that make up their “selfs” and decided on, and chose, those that they truly desire. Thinking, introspection, and self-reflection are quite sadly rather rare activities. The themes of slavery and freedom on Pesach, however, demand that we revisit our primary values; what we consider to be good, bad, right, wrong.
It is well known that the Jews of Egypt were culturally assimilated and pagan. The Midrash presumed that things were so bad that only one-fifth of the Jews actually merited to be freed from Egypt; the rest perished during the Plague of Darkness. The cultural assimilation ran so deep that Chazal described God’s removal of the Jews from Egypt as a farmer having to stick his hand into the womb of a cow to forcibly remove the fetus. Far from the preschool images portraying the Jews of Egypt with peyos and tzitzis, the Jews of Egypt were anything but holy and the process of renewal was anything but easy. God was able to take the Jews out of slavery; as Ibn Ezra (14:13) and others explain, it was less simple to take slavery out of the Jews.
Pesach, though, is the beginning of this process. The question that Pesach begs of us to answer is: can we walk away from images and values we might not agree with, forced upon us by a culture that is not ours? Perhaps we can, perhaps we cannot, perhaps we do not want to. But to be free is to make your own decisions. Whatever life one chooses to live, freedom is the ability to consciously choose it. Can we choose the framework we want to live in, or will we remain forever trapped in the one we happened to have been born into, but never actually chose?
Do we have an answer for why we are religious? For there will come a time when we have to give up something major for this thing we call Judaism, when things are not so simple or easy. Many fail at this point. Many do not have an answer. If we’ve never made our heritage, culture, and religion a part of ourselves, how are we to succeed? How are we to succeed if we do not live with an “I” and “self” with which we are comfortable?
Pesach is the celebration of the beginnings of freedom, not the end; the opening of the doors to be able to make our own choices. It is a most beautiful thing to celebrate, but its implications are most heavy.