A version of this article was originally posted in the Texas Jewish Post
It’s that special time of the year again when supermarkets in heavily Jewish neighborhoods advertise their Passover wares, all conveniently stocked under one roof. And inevitably, some cliched tagline along the lines of, “helping you celebrate freedom!” will grace those holiday ads. The advertising executives, with their catchy phrases, harken us back to the times when G-d redeemed His people from the bonds of Egypt, that we may lighten our pockets at our local grocery stores.
Every year when I encounter these advertising slogans it brings about a particularly painful and prolonged visceral reaction inside of me. It bothers me. Do these chain stores think they understand the freedom that I am celebrating? And for that matter, do my fellow Jews?
I imagine families around their Seder tables, struggling to connect to a story of slavery and redemption thousands of years old. More recent examples of slavery and freedom from bondage will become topics of conversation. The slavery and liberation of Black slaves in the South will surely be referenced, and perhaps a somber contemplation of the current plight of Yazidi women in the hands of ISIS. The value of freedom will be extolled and most likely an acknowledgement of the blessings of life in America, “the land of the free.”
The modern conception of freedom, however, lies far in its connotation from the Biblical freedom that we commemorate in the yearly Seder. After all, for all of the blessings that modern freedoms affords us, it has been nothing if not a mixed blessing for the Jews. For inasmuch as there has never been a time in our history with as much religious freedom, economic opportunity or physical security than we have now in America, there has also never been a time such as these of such great internal defection, with nearly six-in-ten Jews intermarrying, one-in-five Jews describing themselves as having no religion, just 19% of Jewish adults who feel that observing Jewish law is essential to being Jewish and just 26% of U.S. Jews who describe their religion as being very important in their lives.
It’s no surprise, then, that Hanukkah has overtaken Passover as the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday. Tim Newcomb, in an article in Time, Why Hanukkah Is the Most Celebrated Jewish Holiday In America, notes that, “The lack of strict rules makes the holiday easy —- and fun -— to celebrate, which may be why research now shows Hanukkah is more celebrated — whether through the lighting of candles, gift giving, attending a party or a full celebration of the festival in Jewish practice — than even Passover.” In other words, Hanukkah, unlike Passover with it’s myriad of rituals and requirements, is the quintessential holiday for the modern, “free” American Jew — fewer rules and more fun.
What, then, is this freedom that the Torah asks us to commemorate for all generations? If you read the Biblical text carefully you will notice that the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is not so much a freedom from bondage but a transfer of ownership from one slave master to another. As Moses stresses over and over in the Biblical narrative, it is only for the purpose of serving the one and only G-d at the Holy Mountain that the Hebrews were to leave the confines of Egypt.
“Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 5:1)
The Jews were to leave the tyrannical rule of a human despot for the loving service of their maker on high.
The sages of the Talmud hint to the Torah’s unique vision of freedom by stating that the same letters that make up the word “cheirut” (freedom), also comprise the word “charut” (engraved), a reference to the engraved lettering of the ten commandments on stone. True freedom, the lesson teaches, is only to be found in adherence to divine law.
Here lies the paradox of the Passover celebration. The night of the celebration of our national freedom is commemorated in highly legalized pageantry. The name of the night’s proceedings, the Seder, meaning “order,” taken from the detailed laws that dominate the night.
The freedom that we commemorate on Passover is a liberty laced with great personal and national responsibility. If we exercise our freedoms to fulfill our obligations and spiritual calling, then freedom becomes a vehicle for good. But if we approach freedom as a carte blanche to do and act as we please, then freedom takes more away from us more than it offers in return.
The great freedoms of our country have given a broken people reeling from the horrors of Nazi Europe a fresh chance at life. It has also, unmistakably, taken a toll on our people’s spiritual core. As we celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage together with our freedoms of today, let us remember the costs of freedom and ensure that we are celebrating and utilizing the honorable brand of freedom and not the indulgent variety that has become popular of late.