How Free Are We? The Job of Passover
by Irwin Kula
What makes this night different from all other nights? More people experience Passover Seder across more backgrounds than any other Jewish practice. On this night people all over the world engage in an evening long meditation on freedom… a dramatic mix of story telling and singing, drinking and eating, all designed to get one job done: Help us become genuinely free.
How free are we? The Seder is a three-step meditation on the journey inviting us to realize:
- Wherever we are, we are in Egypt… in some way.
- There is always a Promised Land… some better place we can reach.
- We can get to that better place but only by wandering together.
Let’s take each step. Wherever we are we are in Egypt? How are WE, who are so free, in Egypt? The fact is there are millions of people around the planet — disproportionately women and children — who, are literally slaves, physically oppressed and persecuted. There are millions more enslaved in poverty, hunger and homelessness. Whatever our politics, in an interconnected interdependent world as long as people anywhere are enslaved, WE are all slaves. However much security we can purchase, we are all far less safe than we imagine. However evolved we may be, we are all terribly diminished as human beings. Can we liberate others and thereby free ourselves?
But there are also far subtler Egypts. We suffer from intellectual, psychological and spiritual forms of slavery – Egyptomania – that keep us from becoming the best people we can be. We are enslaved by our ideologies and by our prejudices. We are enslaved by our fears of people who are different from us and by new ideas that threaten our certainties. We are enslaved by our habits and patterns of behavior — by our anger, and insecurities, by our envies, jealousies, and cognitive biases. And we are enslaved believing other people’s opinions and judgments about us rather than trusting our own intuitions and insights?
Wherever we are, we are in Egypt! How many of us are enslaved by our culture’s understanding of success sacrificing our lives for our livelihood — missing our child’s recital or soccer game, not visiting an elderly parent or a friend mourning a loss, not nurturing a passion or volunteering our time. How many of us are in jobs killing our spirit because we can’t give up the status or are afraid to take a leap into the unknown? How are we trapped in an endless cycle of desiring things we don’t really need… the newest technology, the most up-to-date fashion, the better car, the bigger house, or the more expensive vacation? How are we enslaved to our technology (I am) and imagining we can multi-task, can’t put down our smart phones at a meeting or when talking to a spouse, a child, or a friend?
Wherever we are, we are in Egypt is keeping us from being the best people we can be. But there is always a Promised Land – some better, freer place. At the Seder we remember leaving Egypt and realize we have the power to leave our Egypts.
Martin Luther King, Jr. in his jail cell in Birmingham was freer than the so-called free men who put him in jail.?Anatoly Sharansky, jailed in the gulag for years, kept alive that Promised Land consciousness. On the day he was released from prison and told to walk in a straight line across a bridge to the waiting car that would take him home, Sharansky walked in a crooked line to prove that his body could be locked up but his mind, heart, and spirit would always be free. Nelson Mandela emerged from prison after 27 years with his more than justified resentment and anger under control and with a spirit so free he could lead his people to reconcile and forgive their oppressors. There is always a Promised Land if we are willing to say no to the Pharaohs. There is always a better place if we are willing to free ourselves from our own and our culture’s worst impulses and habits.
The most important practice on Passover is to not eat Hametz – leavened bread – and to eat Matzah – unleavened bread – the symbol of freedom. What is the difference between hametz and matzah, since both are made from flour and water? It is literally one-second. Water and flour left for 18 minutes before baking becomes hametz – 17.59 it is still matzah. The thin line between hametz and matza evokes the thin line between freedom and slavery. We can be externally free and yet terrible enslaved and we can be externally enslaved and yet so powerfully free.
Finally, we can leave Egypt and get to a better place but only if we wander together. There is no easy way to leave Egypt and no direct way to the Promised Land. It is two steps forward and one step back. And whether we are freeing people from physical oppression or freeing ourselves from more subtle forms of slavery we need each other’s help. No one can do it alone. We need to come together as lovers, families, friends, colleagues and communities with passion and purpose to free each other and ourselves. On Seder night we sit together at the table across generations, political loyalties, and ideological allegiances to tell the Exodus story, reminding us we need each other to find the way to the Promised Land.
What makes this night different from all other nights? On this night we ask with all seriousness how free are we and how free can WE become?
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