Latest update: July 15th, 2013
Once again we find ourselves celebrating the yom tov of Pesach – the same holiday we celebrated last year at this time, and next year we’ll be doing the same.
Traditionally, Pesach commemorates the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt – a pivotal point in our becoming a people: we gained our freedom – physically, and very soon after, spiritually. We refer to the holiday as the time of our freedom – z’man chairusenu – and the Pesach seder, with all its obligations and practices, thoroughly stresses the message of freedom and God’s redemption of the Jewish people throughout the ages.
That Pesach has its own set of special practices and mitzvot is not surprising; most of the holidays we observe do. But what makes Pesach unique is that we don’t only set out to remember what happened by utilizing the symbolism of the mitzvoth or the specific wording of the liturgy and blessings of the holiday; rather, we retell the story in a way that is designed to make it as real as possible, and with the unique instruction that we should consider it as if we too are the ones who actually participated in this magnitudinous event.
The Rambam in his wording in the Mishneh Torah stresses: “In every generation one is obligated to see himself as if he just left slavery in Egypt.”
Is this requirement to personalize the Exodus intended as an educational, experiential tool? If so, it’s highly effective. Perhaps the requirement to see ourselves as having just been freed is based on the logic that we’re free today because our ancestors were freed then. It was a long time ago, but we live with their gained freedom.
The specific language, however, suggests there’s more. Rav Dessler writes that “z’man chairusenu” has literal meaning. The month of Nissan is a month of “geulah,” of redemption. The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah (11A) says in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua, “B’Nissan nigalu, b’Nissan asidin l’gael” (“In Nissan we were redeemed, and in Nissan we will be redeemed in the future”).
Nissan, we’re told, is a highly auspicious time for redemption. The Torah, which doesn’t name the months but refers to them by numbers, considers Nissan the first of the months, or “rosh chodashim,” which the Midrash says is “rosh l’geulah” – “the first, or foremost, for geulah.”
But if gaining our freedom is in some way a constant from year to year, and this year we’ll gain it again, what exactly is the freedom that we gain each year anew? And what was the freedom that was achieved at the time the Jews left Egypt? Seemingly, it wasn’t a complete freedom – we became free of Egyptian mastery but almost immediately accepted upon ourselves the yoke of Heaven, of God’s mitzvot.
We never gained our total freedom at the Exodus, but by leaving the physical and spiritual incarceration of the land of Egypt the Jewish people gained what we consider a truer freedom – one most valuable to humankind: the freedom to choose.
True freedom, we learn (as children and usually more so as adults) is not to be free from all influences. We need structure, direction, and boundaries in order to live life to its full potential. This the Torah provided as soon as the constraints of Egypt and all that it represented were lifted and the Jewish people were free enough to choose for themselves.
Seven weeks after the Exodus, the Jewish people used their newfound ability and chose to accept God’s word (“Na’ase v’nishma…”) They didn’t become totally free from influences; they became totally free to choose those influences. They chose to be influenced by the Torah; they chose that as their destiny.
Freedom means different things to different people, depending on their place in life, and a myriad of variables. We tend to think of it as the ultimate in human existence, and if we ponder the question of whether it’s better to be free from the start or to go from slavery to freedom, we might say the answer is obvious. Not having the problem to start with is always best – isn’t it? Would it not have been better if the Jewish people were never slaves?
But in his Sefer HaTodaah, Eliyahu Kitov writes that the person who never tasted the slavery in Egypt can’t taste the taste of geulah, of redemption. He states that if the Jews hadn’t been enslaved in Egypt, they would never have merited being free people.
The message sounds a lot like “we appreciate and value something more if we at one point didn’t have it (in this case our freedom), and then we acquire it.” But there’s a much more significant point here, one which provides explanation as to why we are obligated to see ourselves as having personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt.
Being free is an ultimate, but there’s one step before that. It’s that transitionary time – the leaving of slavery, the becoming a free person – that’s necessary for true freedom. When one leaves slavery, any slavery, and gains freedom, he gains both the ability to make choices for himself and also a unique awareness of his capacity – the human capacity – to choose, at every single step along the way.
Transitioning to freedom makes one keenly aware of this capacity. The individual who’s always had the ability to choose remains limited in exercising that freedom, lacking a heightened awareness of the power of choice present in all circumstances. He’s stymied when facing tougher choices, unclear ones, abandoning the freedom of choice in situations where it seems as if choice is undesirable or not possible.
The newly freed individual relishes in choice, readily admitting that not all possibilities can be chosen, but knowing that choice, in some shape or form, is always possible.
Every Pesach we gain our freedom by regaining our awareness of our freedom.
We place ourselves at the pivotal point of transitioning from slavery to freedom, reminding ourselves that the ability to choose indeed exists. In every generation we have to see ourselves as just released, newly capable of choice. Nissan reminds us of that power we have; it empowers us to maneuver the world we live in.
We are all born into predetermined circumstances: family, gender, geography, socio-economic situation. Free will, we believe, exists, but not because we can choose the best of all worlds. We can’t, usually. But we can choose something in every situation.
Bechirah, Rav Dessler writes, is about acknowledging truth. We are free to choose what that which we believe to be true. He speaks of the bechirah point, one that shifts, depending on a person’s situation, nature, propensity. As he explains it, easy decisions and extremely difficult ones don’t involve our bechirah chofshis; they’re either too easy or too hard. But the choices that are at the exact point where a person could go either way – these are where the human ability to choose (right over wrong, good over bad, truth over falsehood) forcefully comes into play.
We’re no freer from the challenges of choosing today than we were last year, then we’ll be next year, than people were 3,000 years ago, at the time of the Exodus. And yet we’re as free to choose as people always have been, and as aware people always will be.Judah S. Harris
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