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Pesach 2014 / 5774 - Pesach - Free Then, Got to be Free Now

13.04.2014 by

Passover, as we all know, is, first and foremost, about memory. Technically speaking, the central mitzvah of Passover is the commandment to tell our children the story of the Exodus from Egypt. To do this most effectively, we are asked to relive the experience of slavery and freedom with them. We eat bitter herbs to feel the oppression, and have the matzo that our forefathers ate, both as slaves, subsisting on the cheap, filling, unleavened bread supplied to them by their masters, and as free men, hurrying to leave Egypt before their dough could rise. We drink four cups of wine, leaning as we do so, as people do, comfortably, at leisure, when they are free. All of the rituals of the Seder, along with a few minor ones which are meant to engage the children and get them to ask about the meaning of the night,  are a strategy to put ourselves back into the experience, an attempt to recall, as vividly and meaningfully as we can, with our children, the birth of our nation, the salvation granted to us by God, as He took us from slavery to freedom. 

There is, however, another interesting theme that emerges in the Hagaddah. It first appears at the very beginning of the Seder. Just after the Kiddush is said over the first cup of wine, and before we start the actual Hagaddah, we recite the following: הא לחמא עניא..."This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the Land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry let him come and eat, whoever is in need let him come and join in the Passover celebration. Now we are here, next year may we be in the Land of Israel.  Now we are slaves, next year - free men."

The first half of this short invocation makes perfect sense - we want all of Israel to join us in celebrating our freedom, in sharing the matzah  and other foods and rituals of the Seder. We want the entire nation to celebrate our nationhood. The second half, however, which describes us as currently being slaves, in exile, and hoping that next year, next Paassover, we will celebrate as free men in our own homeland, seems somewhat out of place. We are about to discuss the Exodus from Egypt. Why mix in the need for a new exodus now?

This theme appears a few more times in the course of the evening, most dramatically after we have finished telling the Passover story, eaten the ritual food, completed our festive meal, and pour the final, fourth cup of wine.  At that time, we open the door to our home and greet Elijah the prophet, the traditional harbinger of Messiah and redemption. We recite verses from Pslams and Lamentations asking God to pour out His wrath on those nations who have oppressed Israel. This ritual, along with pouring the fifth cup of wine for Elijah the prophet, is a clear declaration of our desire for a contemporary exodus, a contemporary freedom, which we hope God will grant us. Again, why do we go off-message, so to speak, leave the Exodus from Egypt behind, and, here at the end of the Hagaddah, as we did at the beginning,  focus on our current need for redemption?

I think this theme of our hope for redemption now is a lesson about what remembering Egypt is really all about. We do our best, with ritual, study, and narrative, to go back in time, to experience our ancestor's Exodus from Egypt. That experience is meant to teach us something not only about the past but, more importantly, about the present. We are meant to understand that, just as being free, autonomous, and independent enough to worship God and live freely as Jews was crucial for us then, when we first became a nation, so it remains today. If we really experience the Exodus on the Seder night, if we really understand the message of freedom, autonomy, and free will, then we must, when we return from our trip back in time, apply that lesson to our situatiion today. We must look around ourselves and ask: Are we free? Are we able to worship and live freely, as Jews, in our own Jewish state? Are we able to make our own independent, Jewish, moral-ethical decisions about how to run our personal and collective lives, or are we still slaves to another culture, another master, another nation and its values? The Hagaddah, by including the theme of  contemporary redemption, is reminding us that the values of Pessach - freedom, free choice, Jewish national autonomy, and the covenant with God which that autonomy - and only that autonomy - really allows us to fully  enter into, are still what being Jewish is all about, today. If we don't understand that, if we don't yearn for and work for that freedom, that national redemption, the coming of Elijah and the return to the Land of Israel (which, by the way, now exists as an independent Jewish state), than our journey back to Egypt is simply nostalgia, a cheap trip down memory lane, with no real lesson for us, as individuals and as a nation, today. If we don't yearn and work for our own redemption, what is the point of the one that happened in Egypt? 

Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Shimon Felix 

Pesach Summary


Pesach commemorates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. We remember the birth of the Jewish nation on Passover with a seven-day holiday (eight in the Diaspora), which begins with the Seder - a festive meal during which we retell the story of the exodus and describe how God freed us from slavery to become His people, receive His Torah, and live in His chosen land, Israel. During the holiday we eat unleavened bread - matza - to remember both the cheap, crummy bread we were fed as slaves, as well as the speed with which we left Egypt - no time for our dough to rise - and we refrain from eating any form of leavened bread.

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