Will Gotkin is a regular contributor to Gather the Jews.
Pesach (Passover) is here once again and being that Pesach is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays among American Jewry today, it’s safe to say that most of us will do all or at least one of the following: attend a Seder, rid the house of chametz (leavened products and other things forbidden for consumption during Passover), retell the story of the Jews leaving Egypt, or spend time with family. During the Seder it is traditional to read the Haggadah. The Haggadah tells us that we must not think of the Passover story as a thing of the past. Rather, each of us must envision that we ourselves are slaves leaving Egypt and embarking on a life of freedom. But what is freedom? Sounds like an easy question. After all freedom means doing whatever you want, right? Actually Judaism has a slightly different interpretation of what it means to be free.
Many have heard that G-d commanded Moshe to go to Pharaoh and say “Let my people go,” but the last part of the sentence is often forgotten. It reads as follows “Send out my people so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.” So that they may serve Me should remind us that G-d redeemed the Jewish people from bondage in order to enable them to serve Him. Indeed the whole purpose of life is to recognize and come closer to G-d. This is achieved through studying the Torah – G-d’s blueprint for living – and performing the mitzvot. Each mitzvah is a connection to the Creator and Sustainer of all life.
So how is this freedom? It seems as if the Jewish people traded in one type of slavery in for another! The truth is that serving G-d is actually the only kind of freedom that exists. A person who is ruled by their impulses is not free. Often what we think is right or good for us does not lead to good results. The Torah is a manifestation of G-d’s will and intellect in this world. It provides us with objective advice divorced from our own limited, fallible understanding of what is right and wrong, beneficial and harmful, wise and foolish. Yes, everyone makes mistakes in life, but the Torah enables us to transcend ourselves and connect with something higher. When we free ourselves from the chains binding us into our own little worlds of me – a recipe for misery – and connect with our Source we become free to actualize our potential as human beings.
Mitzrayim (Egypt) is related to the word, Meitzar, which denotes limitation. The Jews leaving Egypt was not just a story that happened once long ago. We are confronted with the challenge of freeing ourselves from our own limitations on a daily basis. We all have our own personal Egypt holding us back from experiencing freedom. For some, Egypt may mean an inability to control emotions like anger, selfishness, or excessive pessimism. For others it is never ‘finding the time’ to discover more about their Judaism. Still others can’t turn off their cell phones for a few hours or decrease their time chasing money or recognition. Whatever our struggle may be, this Pesach we should reflect on the meaning of freedom – in the Jewish sense of the word – and resolve to take at least one step toward being free people.
During Pesach we eat matzah, the bread of affliction and we avoid all leavened products. Chassidus teaches that all of our negative character traits stem from ego – our conception that we the individual are the center of it all. Yeast symbolizes the ego. Matzah, which is devoid of yeast, is flat and easily broken. Chassidus explains that the first step toward personal growth and self-improvement is humility and self-nullification. With a contrite and ‘broken’ heart we can engage in honest introspection and connect with a higher reality. May we all emerge from the bondage of Egypt and taste freedom now!