FREEDOM IS ON THE TABLETS
By Rabbi Reuven Mann
The holiday of Passover is one of the most popular on the Jewish calendar. A large number of Jews and many gentiles will attend a Seder and observe some of the laws and customs of this season to one degree or another. The special appeal of the holiday seems to lie in its theme of freedom. The Haggadah recounts the story of the enslavement of the Jews under the wicked Pharaoh and their deliverance via the miraculous intervention of Hashem. This narrative has been a source of fortification to many oppressed people throughout history. It inspired the composition of moving Negro spirituals and was a source of encouragement in the heroic struggle of Black Americans for freedom and equality. At this moment in history, as we witness the battle of oppressed people in many Arab countries to obtain freedom from tyrannical despots, the theme of human freedom so championed in the Haggadah could not be more relevant.
The major objective of our Seder gatherings is to engage in vigorous discussion prompted by challenging questions. In that spirit, I would like to ask whether we are to regard the freedom obtained on the night of the Exodus as permanent or only temporary. At first glance, the sources seem to be ambivalent. In the Maariv (evening) prayers we praise Hashem “who removed His nation from their midst to eternal freedom.” The idea of enduring freedom is echoed in the Haggadah when we enunciate the obligation of each person to “view it as though he/she had personally gone forth from Egypt” and proclaim “It was not just our ancestors alone whom the most Holy redeemed, but also us did He redeem with them…” However we must ask: can this assertion be taken at face value? Haven’t the Jews been oppressed and enslaved in so many ways at so many times and places throughout our exile? The Haggadah, seemingly in contradiction with itself begins with the famous paragraph of “This is the bread of affliction” in which we say, “now we are slaves next year may we be free.” In the Shemoneh Esrei prayer recited three times a day we pray for Hashem to “see our affliction and redeem us speedily” and also to “sound the great Shofar for our freedom and gather us together from the four corners of the earth.” How can we thank Hashem for having granted us eternal freedom and yet lament the fact that “now we are slaves” at the same time?
I believe that the answer lies in a deeper understanding of the concept of freedom, which is at the heart of this festival. Liberation from external bondage and the right of self-determination are essential in achieving this goal, but, by themselves, are not sufficient. The Rabbis have made a very significant statement on this subject. The Torah describes the Tablets containing the Ten Commandment as “the handwriting of Hashem inscribed on the Luchot.” The Hebrew word for inscribed is “charut” whose letters can also be read as “cherut” which means freedom. Employing this play on words the Rabbis teach, “There is no free person except the one who engages in Torah study.” They are instructing us that human freedom is not just of the body but of the soul as well. One can be exempt from external constraints but can be a slave to his own uncontrollable urges or compulsions. The purpose of the Torah is to communicate the knowledge we need to live a life, which is in line with our nature. It is only through recognition of truth that we can liberate ourselves from our enslavement to instinct and the pursuit of what King Solomon labeled as “vanity of vanities.”
We can now resolve the conflicting statements we have referred to. In the sense that the “freedom inscribed in the Tablets” is always available we may regard ourselves as eternally free. As we increase our share of the wisdom revealed to us in the Torah, make intelligent choices and emulate Hashem’s ways of justice and compassion, we fulfill our identity as beings created in the “Image of G-d.” It is this type of self-actualization that constitutes true human freedom. To the extent that we spurn the Torah and embrace alien values, we relinquish our freedom. The root cause of our exile is expressed in the Holiday Musaf prayer, which says, “And because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” We begin the Seder with an acknowledgement of the stark reality that we have not yet achieved the goal of the Exodus and are right now slaves in a foreign land. However, we go on to affirm that in every generation we must view it as though we have been liberated from Egypt. True freedom is within our reach. We have the Torah, which is the “Tree of life for all who seize hold of it.” Let us resolve to aspire to access the freedom, which has been inscribed for us on the Tablets. Next year may we be in the land of Israel. Next year may we be free. Chag Sameach.
Rabbi Reuven Mann is the spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Phoenix.