We recognize that the Exodus story in the Torah, like all biblical narratives, is more than just a historical or political tale of physical bondage and ensuing liberation, it is also a spiritual and psychological drama. The exodus represents the human potential to liberate itself from slavery — be it physical, mental, or spiritual.
Let us explore some of the inner dynamics of slavery and freedom, some of the fundamental questions concerning freedom. What is the value of freedom? And why do we desire it so? How do we find it?
We are forever in search of freedom; it is the timeless quest for emancipation that lies in the heart of every human being, and yet it remains forever out of our reach. We think to ourselves: if only this or that would happen, then we would be free. We claim we just have to put this or that in order first. We never give up seeking it even as it remains seemingly just out of our reach, even if we have crossed the barrier that we thought was in our way.
A natural human tendency is to worship that which we have become comfortable with. We worship our habits, attitudes, patterns, inclinations and routines, simply because we have become accustomed to them. We want to enjoy a god that fits into our comfort zones. We know the ways we are enslaved, whether it is to money, to fame, to an addiction, to another person.
Life is about challenge, mystery and growth. We ought not say, “This is the way I am. I am comfortable with this world view, any other way must be wrong.” Rather, we ought to challenge every instinct, convention and dogma. Don’t let your life become enslaved to a pattern just because it has “always been that way.” Don’t let your soul be confined by external conventions. Be open to sublime transcendence at any moment of your life.
Techiyas Hamaysim will take place in the month of Nissan. This tells us that our task is to bring ourselves to life. We must always be searching for the other half of the Afikomen.
The 4 cups of wine correspond to the four leshonos, terms, of Geulah, of redemption.
Vehotzaysee –I took you out Vehitzalti –I rescued you Vega’alti –I redeemed you Velakachti eschem Li le’am –I brought you to Me to be My people.
The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means straights, constraints, obstructions – representing the forces that get in the way of a person becoming who he or she truly is. We each carry our own private mitzrayim within us, a seeming restricting force that prevents us from living fully, from actualizing our lives. It may be fear, anxiety, insecurity, arrogance, addiction, dishonesty, laziness, envy, or despair. Our personal obstruction may stem from difficult experiences, health problems, dysfunctional families, financial difficulties, or the death of a loved one. Such life challenges can induce in us a state of psychological exile, keeping us stuck in a quagmire of hopelessness, torment, and paralysis, prohibiting us from fulfilling our potential.
Pharaoh, the king of Egypt symbolizes the inner king of obstruction – that inner voice of power that invariably ensures we remain shackled to our individual enslaving patterns.
We might question: how much inner harmony must we achieve in order to obtain psychological freedom? Do we need our inner “Pharaoh’s” complete consent?
Often we abandon the effort for inner freedom as we realize we can never completely rid ourselves of our inner demons, our pharaohs. We surrender to lives of “quiet desperation” (in Thoreau’s famous words) since we cannot have total inner integration. Thus we remain filled with inner strife and conflict.
Judaism is actually more tolerant of human foibles and does not necessitate the obliteration of all darkness and negativity within the human heart. We have only to continue our struggle of avoiding evil and recognize that fluctuations are normal. That is why we have Torah and mitzvot, to help us to be in accord with the highest level of morality and spirituality. We must allow for our humanity. The Torah, as we know, was not given to the angels, but to us imperfect human beings. There will always be an inner demon (pharaoh) attempting to convince us why we should remain an addict, in the abyss.
Freedom is the ability to rejoice in the fact that despite our inner battles we have the vision and courage to continue to fight the battle for the Truth.
The Pesach Haggadah has a perspective in addressing this, a spiritual path blazed out for us. The arbah leshonos shel Geulah were composed by Hashem while we were bound in slavery. Within it G-d refers to four levels, four concepts of freedom. Each level is built on the previous level as with a tree; first we have the roots, then the trunk, branches and finally the fruit.
These four leshonos correspond with the four cups of wine we drink during the Seder. Each one toasts one of the languages of redemption and freedom.
Though it may sound redundant, these are actually four different languages of freedom. Let us examine them more closely.
1) Ve’hotzaysee – G-d promises that a time will come when we will be relieved of the burden of work. If all our energy is expended for sheer survival, it is as if we are still enslaved.
When Adam sinned, G-d deemed he must now work for his livelihood, pursue prey, prepare his food. Adam despaired. Now that he needed to provide his own sustenance, there would be less time for him to reach his potential. To live in order to provide had now become his major preoccupation. Today we are still enslaved by our schedules. We are so involved in our rigmarole that even were freedom offered us we would not know how to deal with it. When Moshe told the people they were to become free, they were unable to hear it; their tolerance level was shortened and they could not absorb the idea of freedom.
Spiritual and G-dly freedom means to have the time to breathe and to reflect; time to have a happy awareness of the self.
Even with less involvement in the rat race we are still not free. Still it is a prerequisite towards freedom, the roots of which can grow, eventually producing the fruit that man was meant to cultivate.
There is the story of a wagon driver, who carries his packages–his onus–on his back. A passenger asks him why he does this. The driver responds, “I want to make it easier for you by carrying the weight on my back.” The rider hears the absurdity and thinks: “Are not the packages and the riders and the wagon being carried anyway?!” Without that attitude we lose freedom. By trusting in Hashem we release ourselves of an onus, and then we can care for– carry– others as well, helping to unburden them.
So, freedom is learning to unburden ourselves. In the dedication and pursuit of freedom we can look to help any human to have dignity. A moral and spiritual elevation is predicated on this unburdening.
2) Ve’hitzalti estchem me’avodosaichem – And I will save you from the servitude. Man has difficulty making choices. We often determine our own system of free will and attempt to exercise it. Our choices tend to be self-serving, our priorities warped. If you supply someone with every luxury and give him everything, you are smothering his basic freedom. He does not have himself. He is not formed through choices he has made himself. He has got it all, perhaps, but robbed of his own self-development.
We need to keep alive the knowledge of God, to really know that we can have a relationship with Him. Chassidus says that if we are looking at the world correctly we cannot help but realize that we are in God’s constant presence. Once we experience the world in this way we enjoy a certain special freedom. Otherwise life is about avoiding (metaphoric) earthquakes, entirely vulnerable to nature’s whims.
When Moshe approaches Pharaoh he pleads for freedom for his people. Besides Shelach et ami, it says B’ni bechori Yisroel. Hashem proclaims that He has a personal, father/son, relationship with Israel. We can be close to God.
Jewish history is replete with bondage and slavery. So much so, that we might wonder why we even celebrate freedom. Are we really free? How can we lie back at the Seder and rejoice? Our lives are distinguished as we live with God’s presence, our choices made from a place of priority. This level of freedom can never be taken from us.
When we lift the cup celebrating our freedom, know that whatever attempts were made, are being made, to destroy us, we have survived. That is the best testimony.
3) Vega’alti etchem bizroah netuyah – I will redeem you with an outstretched arm. This is an expression of redemption. We have now removed the burden, established our roots. With the sturdiness of the trunk we have firmly established ourselves in free choice, after which the branches can produce fruit.
Geulai Hashem, refers to those redeemed by God. Not just free and liberated but free and liberated by Hashem.
So, this third idea, a toast to freedom, is not just as an avoidance of the negative but a commitment.
There is a dispute within Jewish philosophy in regards to what matzah symbolizes. Marror, the bitter herbs, clearly represents the bitterness of slavery. Matzah is the food we ate in Egypt, the bread of the poor man, of slaves. We left in a hurry, not having had time for a planned liberation. The dough was still raw when we fled. Matzah then symbolizes the speed of becoming free. So, which is it? Is it a symbol of servitude or of freedom? The answer is both. Yes, we ate it in Egypt, but on the night of Seder, we hold in one hand the bitter herbs of oppression and the bread of affliction, and in the other, the wine of redemption. There is no contradiction because man must realize that freedom doesn’t come from anything he can plan for without God’s help. If Bnei Yisroel had depended solely on themselves for their liberation, and not God, we’d still be slaves– matzah and marror. But if liberation is understood to be through the Source from whence freedom comes, then raise a cup to that Source, dedicate yourself to freedom.
4) Velakachti etchem li le’am – And I will take you to Myself as a people. The servitude was a necessary pre-requisite. Suffering together gave us a sense of unity. Things we do in our life are vehicles to something else. Deficiencies are necessary to acquire traits that we can put into use later. We are more complete after this building up, reinforced. We then can bring every part of our lives towards that purpose.
We start with the disgrace of slavery, the indolence, the lack of initiative. After the dross is removed the soul can lift up. The impact of the slavery though, can be turned into a badge of honor, of glory.
Hashem doesn’t force intellectual or spiritual growth on us. He invites us to move up step by step. So, once liberated we can freely enslave ourselves. Free to be in charge of ourselves, and to choose to accept G-d’s rule.
We are not free until we are clear as to what our purpose on this earth is. Without that knowledge we live in doubt and confusion as to life’s meaning and our unique contribution.
This fourth aspect, then, is clarity of one’s purpose. The Jewish people, as we know, have a unique role in Creation– a uniqueness of calling. We must realize that humanity can emerge freely only to the degree that we merge with that source of freedom. As long as we do not believe our relationship with G-d to be secure we live unfree. If we are not spiritually oriented, and believe a crisis that befalls us to be random, then we are unable to discern rhyme or reason for the deep pain we feel. We might think, yes, He might have chosen me, but now He is rejecting me. And doubt sets in.
So, it becomes clear that the first three leshonos focus on our going out, our leaving while the fourth gives the purpose for leaving. Within the first three Hashem ended slavery, had us leave the impurity. The final one tells where we are going, the reason for leaving.
The first three refer to the past, the fourth talks about the future: to receive the Torah, to come to Eretz Yisroel.
We are not allowed to drink between the third and fourth cup. We go straight from the servitude to renew ourselves, the chadash of Hashem. There must be continuity between leaving evil and what we are going towards.
The usual way of looking at this world is to see death as the end. With our limited senses we see ends, but in reality there is no end, just a transformation.
After our time here we will be asked: “Tzipisa l’yeshuah? Did you long for redemption?” Did you believe there was something beyond?
We can read about Yetziyat Mitzrayim, but it doesn’t have much meaning for us unless we can relate it to the events in our own lives. Then the words are brought to life. The mitzvah is to tell the story. With each retelling we can draw further from our own life’s experience. Perhaps this is why we have this mitzvah of telling and retelling the same familiar story. With each retelling we discover more about ourselves. We are not told to learn Torah here – just to tell the story. The story that is our lives.
The Pesach Seder, is a vehicle for personal and national freedom, to free us from the limitations that hold us back from a greater self. The laws, ordinances and statutes of the Seder have been designed for our optimum growth.
These are some questions we might ask ourselves that can help us lift the chains of our self-oppression and guide us towards liberating self-expression: Are we on the right path? Are we walking on the path that our Creator set out for us? What are my goals and priorities, and what are the values reflected in those goals? Are they in alignment with God’s will? Am I being honest with myself, with others, and with God?
After searching deeply within for the answer, we can refine our purpose and go towards positive growth. We can take this opportunity to lift ourselves out of our oppression and be in charge of ourselves. Reaching towards personal fulfillment while connecting to God would be the very truest freedom.
This scrutiny, this self-searching, the seeking out of our inner chometz is one of life’s pivotal and difficult challenges. Achievement and maintenance of freedom is available only through the ongoing struggle of self-awareness. With clarification, and the conviction to follow wherever it may lead, we can achieve a spiritually sensitive, value-driven life, a life of meaning.
L’shanah Habaah B’Yerushalayim
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