The festival of Passover enjoys tremendous popularity. Most Jews celebrate this holiday, at least in some fashion. This celebration, as even young children know, marks our freedom from slavery and bondage in Egypt.
The festival of Passover enjoys tremendous popularity. Most Jews celebrate this holiday, at least in some fashion. This celebration, as even young children know, marks our freedom from slavery and bondage in Egypt. At the time of Passover we became a free nation, and we endeavor today to mark and experience this state of freedom during the festival, and continue with this experience throughout the year.
The atrocities that the Egyptians perpetrated against our ancestors in Egypt are well documented. Equally well-documented is the great display of Divine might in the deliverance from Egypt. We read about this in the Haggadah, in the Torah, and in the Talmud and Midrash. It is understandable, therefore, why the celebration and happiness, as well as the awareness of Passover, is so popular. However, upon further examination, the marking and celebrating of our "freedom" seems, at best, out of place: Exactly seven weeks after the exodus, as all were assembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Hashem proclaimed the Jewish people as "My servants whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 25:42,55). It seems that the status of being servants to Pharaoh was exchanged for being servants to Hashem. What kind of "freedom" carries and maintains the status of "servants"?
Understanding the concept of freedom will help us solve this apparent dilemma. Describing someone or something as "free" is a relative term. For example, plant life would be considered free when supplied with plenty of water, provided with ample oxygen, exposed to a healthy dosage of sunlight, and, of course, firmly implanted and rooted in the ground. On the other hand, for an animal to be free, the opposite is true. An animal cannot be rooted and confined to one place and be considered free. Even if the animal has all its necessities supplied, it still must fulfill its natural need to roam about. Being confined to a cage, however comfortable it might be, is not natural, and is certainly not considered free.
However, for a human being, the ability to roam about would be quite a superficial freedom at best. Rather, freedom for a human is achieved by expressing adequately that which distinguishes him from all other creations: his mind, his wisdom, and his logic. Barring a human from this expression would place the person in true bondage. The possibility of learning and understanding, and the freedom to express these faculties, is the definition of freedom for a human being. In other words, in order to experience true freedom, an individual must have the ability to realize his full potential. Any situation that would limit a person from maximizing his full potential would hinder the ultimate experience of freedom. The same is true concerning an animal or a plant on their level.
With regard to a Jew and his experience of freedom, the same logic would apply, and must manifest itself in what is unique to a Jew and that which distinguishes him from the rest of the world. The difference between a Jew and a non-Jew is obviously not in physical appearance, since we all look, essentially, the same. Rather it is a spiritual difference. The soul of a Jew is literally a portion of Hashem, and being of such potent spirituality, it constantly longs to be connected and bonded to its source: Divinity and G-dliness. Therefore, a Jew can only experience true freedom through maximizing his spiritual potential, i.e. through the study of Torah and observance of its commandments, which effect and influence a person ever closer to the potential provided to him by his neshamah (soul), a part of Hashem.
This is why our sages say that "the only free person is one who toils in Torah" (Ethics of Our Fathers 6:2). The true expression of freedom for a Jew is through his study of Torah and observance of mitzvot. Therefore, when Hashem was freeing His people from material and spiritual bondage, He bonded us to Him. By making us into His servants, He gave us the potential to achieve and experience true freedom.
Rabbi Yossi Lew is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Tefillah, youth coordinator at Chabad of Georgia, and a teacher at the Greenfield Hebrew Academy Middle School.
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