Leaving Egypt

It is widely known that Rosh Hashanah is marked as the beginning of the new Jewish year because it marks the birthday of the world according to rabbinic lore. Nevertheless, it is Nisan, the Hebrew month containing Pesach, that is understood by the rabbis to be the first month of the calendar. From their perspective, Pesach marks the launching of the Jewish people.

Pesach, of course, marks the liberation of the ancient Israelites from Egyptian bondage. The historicity of the biblical account is not important to me. What matters is that this event is central to a Jewish self-understanding. As I have been thinking about Pesach this year, it has struck me that as an American I experience freedom as "freedom to" -- to practice religion as I wish, to exercise free speech, to follow my career of choice, and so on.

In the course of my work on the Pesach section of my book, A Guide to Jewish Practice: Shabbat and Holidays, however, I was reminded that the freedom that the rabbis had in mind was significantly more focused. The Haggadah tells of a conflict between two great Talmudic rabbis, Rav and Shmuel. One held that the liberation was from physical privation and servitude. The other said it was freedom from false ideas and idolatry. Other rabbis have said that the process of liberation was only begun at Pesach and that it was completed 50 days later when the Israelites received revelation at Mount Sinai. According to that understanding, we are only truly free when we willingly do the divine will.

The phrase in the Torah that is usually translated "Let my people go" is a euphemism. The Hebrew is Sh'lakh et ami, literally, "Send my people out!" Moses understood that the Israelites were not so gung ho to leave the safety of Egypt. He needed Pharaoh to give them a push. They were not going from slavery to endless plenty and freedom, but from the tyranny of Pharaoh to a situation that allowed them to freely serve God.

Pesach is a holiday that is mightily concerned with getting rid of hametz, leavening of all sorts, and with food preparation. Someone recently called it an obsessive-compulsive's delight. We can get so hung up on the food that we lose track of the more important Pesach task: clarifying our commitment to freedom. Pesach is not only about "freedom from." It is about our having the freedom to make the world a more sacred place by expanding God's presence in it. How do we ensure the freedom of others around the globe? How do we ensure the justice and plenty that sustain freedom? How do we make our lives an expression of the divine will in the world?

From a Jewish perspective, we are only truly free when we are dedicated to following the divine will, which includes helping others on the path to freedom. As Michael Walzer has pointed out, we are not yet fully free. The only way to complete the task is to keep marching. How will you be investing yourself in freedom in the coming days and months? Our time, energy and resources are necessarily limited. We can nonetheless use our freedom to act along with those around us who choose to be partners in bringing redemption.