To Know the Full Meaning of Freedom

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published April 08, 2008, issue of April 18, 2008.
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Let’s assume that Assaf Wohl’s tongue was stuck firmly in his cheek when he proposed in the mass Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot April 4 that we should get rid of Passover. It’s “all about obsessive cleanliness and bad food,” Wohl wrote, calling it “an unbearable holiday.”

Few American Jews will agree. Passover remains, here, the most widely observed Jewish holiday of all, for reasons both large and small.

Some of the small reasons: family and friends. A very wide choice of Haggadot, from the most scrupulously traditional to the most utterly irreverent. My sister-in-law’s matzo balls. The pride when your precocious 5 year old recites all four of the questions or when your sheepish 9 year old manages the same for the first time. Some good songs. My home-made gefilte fish (honest).

But that’s just the decorative stuff. The real attraction is the idea — or, more properly, the ideas — two big ones and one huge one.

Very early in the celebration, we raise the matzo and say (in Aramaic, no less), “This is the bread of affliction; let all who are hungry enter and eat; let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover. This year we are here; next year may we be in the land of Israel; this year we are slaves; next year may we be free people.”

That one brief paragraph could itself provide enough grist for an entire mill. What do we mean when we express the hope to be in Israel next year? And what do we mean when we say we are slaves?

But my favorite challenge is with “let all who are hungry enter and eat.” What is the purpose of reciting such words, when we know perfectly well that no one who is actually hungry is in fact going to enter just then. Goodness, we don’t even know the names of the hungry, and, with all due sympathy to the homeless, we’re more likely to make sure the windows are rolled up when we see them than we are to lower the windows and ask them to drop by on Seder night.

Here’s one way to think about the words: Back when they were first spoken (or written), whoever it was that was their author probably knew exactly the names of his or her neighbors who were down on their luck, needed a place to be and a meal to eat. If reciting those same words today under vastly changed circumstance is intended to accomplish something more than merely make us feel good about ourselves, an exercise in virtual and entirely toothless hospitality, this is a time to stop and ask: Who is now hungry, and why? (Careful: Brazilian bishop Helder Camara once said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”) And, more important: What can I — we — do to change all that so that next year they, too, will be free?

The next big one: “In every generation, we are obliged to see ourselves as if we personally had been part of the exodus from Egypt.” Avadim hayinu — We were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt. We. That’s a lot more than merely remembering what our ancestors experienced; it’s putting ourselves in their shoes. And to put yourself in the shoes of another is to help develop your empathic capacity; it’s to internalize the story and make it our own.

And then there’s the huge one, the one that’s been adopted and adapted by peoples yearning to be free all across the globe. The Exodus.

Terry Gross interviewed James Cone, the founder of black liberation theology, on NPR last week. Cone is a distinguished professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

It was, Cone said, “especially the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt [that] became a central theme in my theology because it’s been a central theme in black religion. Here you have salvation of an enslaved people being liberated. Actually, ‘salvation’ meant ‘to be delivered from bondage.’ That’s literally what salvation means in the Bible, to be set free. And I began to see a powerful thing. Now, I studied that in seminary, but they didn’t teach it like that. They taught it in a way as though it was unrelated to the struggle for justice in society today. But I also saw prophets like Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, Malachi — all these prophets spoke for the poor, spoke for the weak. So if you read the message of the prophets, it is a condemnation of the nation and also of the religious practices of that time for oppressing the poor. That’s why Amos said, ‘Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’”

In order to understand the full power of the Exodus, it is necessary first to understand the full impotence of slavery. Without that prior understanding, the magnitude of the liberation cannot adequately be comprehended or appreciated. Hence avadim hayinu, “we were slaves,” become the critical words of the narrative. “And he oppressed us with burdens,” and so forth.

It is no small thing, sitting at the laden Seder table, so carefully and lavishly prepared, dressed in finery, flowers all around, to think those words, to feel those words, to know their meaning — and thus to know the full meaning of freedom. And thereby to feel gratitude, humility, pride, resolve. Freedom — and soon thereafter, at the base of a mountain, law, too — without which freedom is rendered anarchy.

It is hard to say how Jewish children inherit the passion for justice that has been so marked a characteristic of our people. But one plausible explanation is: at the Seder table, a table of joyful teaching.

Unbearable holiday? Hardly.

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