The Festival of Pesach is, by far, the most celebrated holiday in the Jewish calendar. In terms of popularity, it trumps even Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the “High Holidays.” The theme of freedom that we celebrate on Pesach resonates so deeply within us that Pesach has become a holiday that we want to celebrate. As Americans, who experience freedom as few other Jews have in the past, we surely have an obligation to thank Hashem and to celebrate the incredible gift of freedom that we have here in this country.
In that regard, our Sages ask a penetrating question: A person was in jail for many years, and, at some point, a gracious individual took up his cause and freed him from jail. The day that he actually set foot on free soil was September 1st. It would be appropriate that in every subsequent year, on September 1st, the anniversary of his freedom, he would make a festive party for his family and close friends to celebrate his freedom. He would invite his benefactor to join the festivities and laud him for his goodness and thank him for the freedom that our former prisoner enjoys so much. But if, after several years of freedom, our subject found himself back in jail, would it make sense for him to continue to celebrate September 1st, the day of his previous release from jail? What would he be celebrating? He is no longer free!
Yet that is exactly what we are doing by celebrating Pesach! True, we were freed from the slavery of Egypt on the 15th of Nissan, but, our freedom has been stripped from us. We are in exile once again, not living in Israel with the Holy Temple service in place as the Torah intended. We live in a world dominated by western civilization’s morals and values, not by the Torah’s morals and values, which was the purpose of our being freed from Egypt. In a very significant way, we are again influenced by, and serve, the “gods” of the society in which we live. So exactly why are we celebrating? Aren’t we just like the guy who is back in jail?
When Hashem freed us from the Egyptian slavery, He didn’t just set us free and say, “Okay, you are now free; you’re on your own, have a nice life!” He took us out of Egypt for an exalted purpose: to be His special nation. Returning to our prisoner analogy, what if, when redeeming the prisoner, the benefactor told him, “I am adopting you as my son! And from now on, whenever you are in trouble, you can count on me to take care of you.” Wouldn’t he continue to celebrate the anniversary of his freedom despite whatever his circumstances were since that marked the starting of his relationship with this great benefactor? The celebration of September 1st gives him great hope and promise that he will once again be redeemed from this jail sentence as well.
This is indeed what we celebrate on Pesach. Not just that we were set free some 3,300 years ago, but, rather, that Hashem adopted the Jewish nation as His people and promised us that He would look after us and protect us. He created a unique relationship with us that cannot be severed. That we are Hashem’s nation is also the guaranty that Hashem will ultimately redeem us from this exile as well. So, the Passover Seder not only celebrates the freedom from Egypt, it also celebrates hope for the future redemption. Hashem promised us then that He will take us out of jail should we ever return there.
This is the verse that we say twice daily in the Shema: (Numbers 15:41)
ספר במדבר פרק טו
מא) אֲנִי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹקים אֲנִי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקיכֶם:
I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of Egypt to be a G-d unto you, I am Hashem your G-d.
It was for the express purpose of being our G-d and us being Hashem’s nation that Hashem took us out. Another verse says. (Leviticus 25:54)
ספר ויקרא פרק כה
נה) כִּי לִי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדִים עֲבָדַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקיכֶם
For the Jewish people are My servants, they are My servants whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt – I am Hashem your G-d.
That verse seems to say that Hashem took us out of the Egyptian servitude to be His servants. Something is very wrong here! Weren’t we supposed to have been freed from slavery? Isn’t Pesach about freedom? We’re not free at all! All we did was exchange the Egyptian slavery to the slavery of Hashem! What’s going on here?
Our Sages answer this question in a novel way. They say (Ethics of the Fathers 6:2):
משנה מסכת אבות פרק ו
ב) אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי, וְאוֹמֵר וְהַלֻּחֹת מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹהִים הֵמָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּב מִכְתַּב אֱלֹהִים הוּא חָרוּת עַל הַלֻּחֹת, אל תִּקְרָא חָרוּת אֶלָּא חֵרוּת, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ בֶּן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says, “There is no free person in the world except one who learns the Torah.”
Leaving Egypt to receive the Torah, and becoming Hashem’s servants, is freedom! Not only is Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi telling us a remarkable fact, viz, that people who keep the Torah are free people, he is also saying that they are the only free people in the world! How do we understand this audacious statement? Really, is there a more restricted person in the world than a Torah observant Jew? If he is hungry, can he just step into the closest McDonalds and pick up a hamburger? On a beautiful Saturday morning, can he throw his clubs in the trunk and head out for a few rounds of golf? The list of things a Torah observant Jew cannot do seems endless. Is this freedom?
We must know that when the Sages say something, they have perceived the matter’s deepest depths; our inability to understand the meaning of their words stems solely from our inability to fathom the great depths of their thinking. The definitions they give are spot-on, identifying the essence of the matter.
In Ethics of the Fathers it says (4:1):
משנה מסכת אבות פרק ד
א) בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר, אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קיט), מִכָּל מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי כִּי עֵדְוֹתֶיךָ שִׂיחָה לִּי. אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי טז), טוֹב אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם מִגִּבּוֹר וּמשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ מִלֹּכֵד עִיר. אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קכח), יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ כִּי תֹאכֵל אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ. אַשְׁרֶיךָ, בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. וטוֹב לָךְ, לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמואל א ב), כִּי מְכַבְּדַי אֲכַבֵּד וּבֹזַי יֵקָלוּ
Ben Azai says: Who is wise? One who learns from every person… Who is mighty? One who overcomes his own evil inclination… Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot… Who is respected? One who respects others…
The Sages are unconcerned with a person’s external acquisitions, how much information he has memorized, how many pounds he can bench press, how much money he has, or how many times his name appears in the papers. Our Sages are laser focused on the person himself, the essence of who he is.
Who is wise? The one who values wisdom and understands that it alone is the world’s most precious commodity, demonstrating it by gleaning knowledge from any source, even from the simplest of people.
Who is mighty? The one who can overcome his burning urge to lash back at the person who has just embarrassed him, or the one who can keep to himself a juicy piece of gossip about his biggest enemy. A truly mighty person can control his most formidable opponent, himself, namely, his own evil inclination.
Who is wealthy? One who in his mind lacks nothing because he is perfectly happy with what he has. One who has a million dollars but wishes he had another million, is, in his mind, poor (!) by a million dollars!
Who is respected? One who understands the importance and value of each person, and, because of this, treats all others with the utmost respect because they are very special. This person, who personifies respect, is therefore a most respected person.
When our Sages speak about freedom, they do not mean who can go to the most places or do more things without restrictions. They are talking about the person’s essence.
From this perspective, the person who resists giving in to his hunger and does not stop into the first McDonalds to buy a burger is really exercising his freedom from his body’s dictates. Someone who can act according to a conscious decision of what is the best course of action to follow under the circumstance, instead of what his urges or inclinations push him to do, is truly a free person. The one who gives in to his every whim and urge is the biggest slave in the world. This notion is somewhat counterintuitive, but a moment’s thought will yield how precisely accurate it is.
A customer at Starbucks ordered his coffee beans ground fine, and the barista ground them medium by mistake. The customer, who would not accept the grounds saying that his coffee won’t taste as good, had them grind another bag of beans to his liking. Is this freedom? He must have his coffee exactly as he wants, and, if not, he can’t drink it. He is not free to say, “No problem! It will be fine, I can handle it.”
This is why the person who has a divine, objective, detailed system of choices of what is correct and what is not, and makes an intellectual choice, is the only free person in the world. Such a person controls and overrides his urges and desires rather than being governed by them.
There is a deeper level to this concept. Maimonides writes in the Laws of Divorce (2:20)
רמב”ם יד החזקה הלכות גירושין פרק ב
מי שהדין נותן שכופין אותו לגרש את אשתו ולא רצה לגרש בית דין של ישראל בכל מקום ובכל זמן מכין אותו עד שיאמר “רוצה אני” ויכתוב הגט והוא גט כשר וכן אם הכוהו גוים ואמרו לו עשה מה שישראל אומרין לך ולחצו אותו ישראל ביד הגוים עד שיגרש הרי זה כשר ואם הגוים מעצמן אנסוהו עד שכתב הואיל והדין נותן שיכתוב הרי זה גט פסול ולמה לא בטל גט זה שהרי הוא אנוס בין ביד גוים בין ביד ישראל שאין אומרין אנוס אלא למי שנלחץ ונדחק לעשות דבר שאינו מחוייב מן התורה לעשותו כגון מי שהוכה עד שמכר או נתן אבל מי שתקפו יצרו הרע לבטל מצוה או לעשות עבירה והוכה עד שעשה דבר שחייב לעשותו או עד שנתרחק מדבר שאסור לעשותו אין זה אנוס ממנו אלא הוא אנס עצמו בדעתו הרעה לפיכך זה שאינו רוצה לגרש מאחר שהוא רוצה להיות מישראל רוצה הוא לעשות כל המצות ולהתרחק מן העבירות ויצרו הוא שתקפו וכיון שהוכה עד שתשש יצרו ואמר רוצה אני כבר גרש לרצונו לא היה הדין נותן שכופין אותו לגרש וטעו בית דין של ישראל או שהיו הדיוטות ואנסוהו עד שגירש הרי זה גט פסול הואיל וישראל אנסוהו יגמור ויגרש ואם הגוים אנסוהו לגרש שלא כדין אינו גט אע”פ שאמר בגוים רוצה אני ואמר לישראל כתבו וחתמו הואיל ואין הדין מחייבו להוציא והגוים אנסוהו אינו גט:
Someone who is obligated by the Torah to give his wife a divorce document but refuses to do so, the Jewish court strikes him until he says, “Okay! I want to give the divorce!” This divorce document is kosher … Why is this divorce document not invalid being that it was forced upon him, the Torah mandating that it be voluntarily given? Because someone who is in the grips of his evil inclination to transgress a law in the Torah but was hit until he did what he was supposed to do by law, … since he wants to be part of the Jewish nation and wants to fulfill all the commandments, yet is in the grips of his evil inclination, but now, that he has been beaten, his evil inclination has weakened its grip on him, when he says “I want to give it!” this declaration reflects his true desire, and it is sincere.
Maimonides has taught us a profound lesson. Every Jew’s true essence is to do Hashem’s will, the Torah. What prevents him from doing so? The evil inclination, which holds him hostage. In the case mentioned above, hitting the person subdues the evil inclination enough for the person’s true self to come out.
This concept is expressed most clearly in the prayer of Rabbi Alexandri as recorded in the Talmud Tractate Berachos 17a.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף יז/א
ורבי אלכסנדרי בתר דמצלי אמר הכי רבון העולמים גלוי וידוע לפניך שרצוננו לעשות רצונך ומי מעכב שאור שבעיסה ושעבוד מלכיות יהי רצון מלפניך שתצילנו מידם ונשוב לעשות חוקי רצונך בלבב שלם
After finishing his Amida, Rabbi Alexandrai would say, “Master of the Universe, it is open and revealed to You that our true desire is to fulfill Your desire. What is stopping us? The leaven in the dough (the materialistic part of us) and the kingdom we live in (societal influence.) Please save us from them so we may fulfill Your desire as You wish us to.
Would that we appreciate that our true self is our soul, not our body, it would be much easier to understand why the only free person is one who does what his soul wants him to do. Yet he may not always be aware of what his soul wants because his evil inclination has him in his grips, either “the leaven in the dough,” or the strong influence of the ambient society. If he could only shake off those external influences and isolate his true self, the right thing is exactly what he would want to do.
The Chassam Sofer (d. 1839) explains how a servant of Hashem is truly free in a different way.
As Americans, we find the concept of slavery offensive and inappropriate. How can one human being usurp the rights and freedoms of another and channel them entirely to fulfill his own selfish needs and desires? A slave wants to do things for himself, and is unable to, because he must do what someone else wants him to do! A greater injustice lies in his inability to fulfill his purpose in the world. What about his life’s goals and aspirations? How does one have the right to prevent someone else from pursuing and realizing his own goals, the matters that he feels are his purpose in life?
Yet, when we think about the concept of being a “slave” (better, a servant) to Hashem, these arguments don’t apply. The idea of being a slave to Hashem actually creates the opposite effect.
As Rabbi Alexandri said, our true goal is to do Hashem’s will. If the only goal of the servant is to fulfill his master’s will, then, his servitude is not slavery at all. Aux contraire, through his “slavery” he fulfils his every desire and aspiration. And to think that we get to be the servants of the King of all Kings, Hashem! What a privilege!
This is how it should be with every Jew. Since, deep down, our true desire is to fulfill Hashem’s wishes, we should feel that learning Torah and performing mitzvot is the greatest privilege. This is what we really want to be doing! Unfortunately, as the Rambam and Rav Alexandri say, the earthy body, which has its own own selfish needs and desires, gets in our way and blocks us from doing what we really want to do for Hashem.
There is another layer of depth to this. Since each of us has a unique mission or “job” that our Master, Hashem, has put us here to do, and the context in which we are to accomplish that mission is the framework of Torah and mitzvot, it is only through serving Hashem that we will be able to realize our true purpose in this world! How so? Since each person is different and has his own specific challenges to performing the Torah and mitzvot, his success at this is the fabric of his mission in this world. He is serving Hashem in a way that no person in the past ever has and no person in the future ever will. There is no one who can provide Hashem with the service that he is providing. Hence, instead of service to Hashem stripping him of fulfilling his mission in the world, it is actually the only way he can fulfill it.
There is another approach to this matter. What is the difference between the following two people?
An experienced CPA, Sanford works for a large accounting firm. He arrives to work on time at 8:00 am every day, often to a list of problems that need to be resolved. His bosses have regularly promoted him because he is reliable and conscientious about his work, and he usually resolves the problems within the day. He works consistently and diligently and doesn’t waste company time shopping on line or tending to personal matters during work hours. He generally leaves work at 5:00 pm (except during tax season) to have a pleasant dinner with his family, after which he must often leave to attend meetings of the various communal organizations in which he is involved.
James receives a gentle knock on his door at precisely 7:00 am every day and is handed a list of chores that need to be completed by the end of the day. He keeps himself busy tending to his chores, none of which is too strenuous, gets an hour for lunch and dinner, and can go to sleep at a decent hour after completing his chores.
Sanford works much harder than James, has many more professional, social, and communal demands on him, and often finds himself in high-pressure situations in both his professional and other activities that he is solely responsible for resolving. His bosses and neighbors expect superior results from his work at the firm and for them, which he tries very hard to consistently deliver. Who is the bigger slave, Sanford or James? So why do we want to be like Sanford and not like James?
The answer is that at the end of the day, when Sanford leaves work, he is $700 dollars richer than he was when he woke up in the morning. He is the beneficiary of all his hard work, so it is worth it for him to put himself out for it. When James goes to bed at night, however, he is the same penniless person he was when he woke up. He has no benefit whatsoever from all the work that he did, as it all goes to his master. All he gets is what he needs to live, so he can perform his duties as a servant. After that, he has nothing to show, certainly not in his bank account, for all the work that he has done.
This world is the same way. We work very hard to amass wealth, thinking that we will be the beneficiaries of our labor. When we pass away, however, none of it comes with us. All our efforts were for others, much like James. The only proceeds from our labors that we can take with us, because they truly belong to us even when we leave this world, are the Torah that we learned and the Mitzvot that we have performed. These are the only things that accompany us to the world to come. Only in regard to them, are we like free people who reap the benefits of their labors. The “Sanfords” are people who do the Torah and Mitzvot, who are working for themselves and will take the fruits of their labor with them.
In the Haggadah we say:
בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרָיִם
In every generation, a person must view himself as if he personally left Egypt.
This sounds like a tall order! How, growing up here in “America the free” could we possibly feel as if we were enslaved and then went free? What possibly constitutes the framework for the slavery? If, however, we define freedom as the Sages do, which means an individual’s freedom to do what deep down, in his soul’s innermost recesses, he really wants to do––the Torah and mitzvot–– we surely could feel the excitement of the freedom from the dictates of our whims and urges and the freedom from societal pressures! As our souls grow in Torah and Mitzvot and truly become more and more free, we can use Pesach as the time to do a reckoning of where we are on our journey, celebrating and thanking Hashem for the true freedom for which He took us out of Egypt to enjoy.