Each festival has multiple facets of meaning. One facet of Pesach is ‘Z’man Cheiruteinu’, ‘the season of our emancipation’. In fact, Pesach is a time in which each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we actually came out of Egypt and to experience personal freedom.
The word ‘Egypt’ in Hebrew is ‘Mitrayim’. Mitrayim means ‘boundaries, constraints or limitations’. Thus, Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, refers to leaving our personal inhibitions and limitations behind. Whether they are internally imposed inhibitions of a psychological, physical, or spiritual nature, or be they externally imposed limitations by circumstance or the environment around us.
There’s a lesser-known Midrash about the creation of birds on the fifth day of Creation. The bird was created and came before its Maker. The bird complained and said “I am slight of body. I do not have teeth. I am not blessed with claws or any way of defending myself. I am slow and awkward on the land thus I cannot outrun many of my enemies. I am going to be the bottom of the food chain and go extinct very quickly.”
In response, the Creator gave the bird a pair of wings. A short time later, the bird encountered its Creator again and the Creator inquired as to how it was doing. The bird complained bitterly, “Now, not only am I slight of body and have no means of protecting myself, but I have these two inconvenient heavy things to lug along that are attached to my sides”.
“Silly bird”, replied its Maker. “The wings are there to liberate and free you, so that you can rise up above and beyond the threats, inhibitions, and limitations”.
Sometimes we misunderstand the freedom that we cherish and seek.
We aspire for ourselves and our children to experience – ‘Simchat Ha’Chaim – Joy in Life’, and ‘Sippuk Ha’Chaim – Life Satisfaction’. Often, however, we muddle up the order of these aspirations. Many seek the joy, the ‘Simcha’, the thrills, the pursuit of happiness first, and believe that once they achieve the happiness, they can then think about life satisfaction and fulfilment. But in truth, it’s the other way around. Only by using our freedom to commit to work hard, to work purposefully, to make a difference, can we then achieve life satisfaction and fulfilment, which, in its wake, brings the joy of life – Simchat Ha’Chaim. Commitment and work, lead to fulfillment and then joy.
Many people dream of Freedom. Freedom from the drudgery of their day-to-day existence and commitments at school or at work. However, often when that ‘liberation’, or ‘freedom’ actually arrives, for example, when we are on holidays, it often takes us several days to adjust to the lack of demands and routine just to appreciate the ‘freedom’ and to be able to relax and enjoy ourselves. But to ponder for a moment, if we were on holidays all year ‘round without structure, would we actually appreciate it?
Real freedom is the freedom to ‘do’, to commit and to take responsibility. With liberation comes accountability. Personal satisfaction comes with commitment, not the ongoing thrills of merrymaking all year round. Thus, on the first night of Pesach when we blur the confines of time, we are inspired to experience our personal Exodus/Emancipation from our personal Egypt. We use our minds to recall the Exodus; we use our mouths to verbalise the story of Exodus; we digest the taste of Exodus and freedom in the form of matzah, maror, and wine, and we merit the joy of commitment.
In fact, there’s an amazing dichotomy on Pesach. The word Pesach means to ‘jump over’. A Chasidic interpretation of the word Pesach is when G-d encountered a Jewish home in the land of Egypt that had a little sprinkling of blood of the Pesach lamb offering on its door post, He ‘leapt over’ and danced with joy upon seeing the fulfilment, the purposeful activity, the commitment, and the ensuing joy of the Chag in the home.
At the same time, we also eat matzah (the poor man’s bread) and maror. We experience bitterness, oppression, and pain, albeit only for a contained section of the Seder. Throughout our lives there is a place and time to remember and to experience the sadness, the pain and the maror of life. But only for a controlled and contained timeframe, the rest of the time we drink four cups of wine, feast, recline, and rejoice.
The theme of Pesach experiencing the contained personal and collective pain, with a focus on the joyous taste of freedom empowers us to commit to move forward and rebuild. Whilst we remember a painful past, we don’t allow it to inhibit a hopeful, joyous future, rather to help shape and inform the sliver of the present with knowledge and conviction that we will prevail. We allow ourselves to experience pain, to talk about it, to give it a place of honour and at the same time we focus on moving forward, rejoicing and rebuilding.
This is a challenge of parenting. We want to guide, protect, and educate our children. Often, as Jewish parents, we sometimes overstep the boundaries, imposing upon some of our children’s “freedoms” and inhibiting their ability to choose their own path. However, empowering children requires us to bring them to a point of de-satillisation from us, to develop autonomy; to allow them to make their own choices and to take the responsibility for those choices.
We see this on a global level as well. Over the last number of years, the world yearns for freedom. There have been numerous revolutions in countries ruled by despots and dictators (albeit in current affairs, we see the world still has a way to go). However, if the ripple effect and the outcome of a revolution is continued rebellion and lawlessness, then true freedom has not yet been achieved. Real freedom comes when the country commits to join the community of responsible nations. To uphold and ensure peace, we need co-operation, collaboration, and respect for other countries and to look after those less fortunate than themselves.
Freedom brings commitment, responsibility, growth, and maturity. Mature nations respect and uphold the right of others to exist and to thrive.
Pesach is a time for us to reflect upon, to re-tell, to re-experience, and to project forward true mature freedom so we can achieve Sippuk Ha’Chaim – life satisfaction and fulfilment through accountability, hard work and responsibility, leading to Simchat Ha’Chaim, the joy of life. May it be a joyous festival.
Chag Sameach and have a safe and relaxing holiday!
About the Author
Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.