Passover commemorates the ancient Israelites’ exodus from slavery to freedom. The rabbis refer to Passover as “the time of our freedom.” And in our prayers we refer to Passover as “chag hacheirut” – the holiday of freedom.
So if we’re going to try to connect to Passover in a meaningful way, we should probably talk a bit about freedom.
But, I find that most Passover-related conversations about freedom tend to be either philosophical or historical, both of which, frankly, sound irrelevant and boring.
I get very bored by pseudo-philosophical conversations where people pontificate about the meaning of a grand, abstract word. All it takes is for someone to ask “What is (insert: freedom, truth, love, etc.)?” and I’m asking “Where is the exit?” Ironically, I would like to utilize my freedom to avoid talking about the nature of freedom.
I also get bored by history. I know, I know – if we don’t learn from our history we’re doomed to repeat it. (Which is also ironic because I had to repeat my 9th grade history class.*) But when it comes to the Passover story, talking about how my ancient ancestors were freed from slavery feels disconnected from my life and the world around me.
The rabbis anticipated this problem and mandated: “In every generation a person must see themselves as though they had gone out of Egypt.” (Mishna Pesachim 10:5). This is the foundational idea behind the concept of the seder, where we are meant to keep our history alive by reenacting it. Still, keeping history alive by resuscitating it every year feels more like a burden than the choice of a free person.
Lucky for me, and anyone else looking for a more meaningful connection to the holiday, the chassidic rabbis of the 18th and 19th century turned the Passover story inward. They related to the story less historically and more metaphorically, and they related to the idea of freedom less abstractly and more personally. For them, “Egypt” (mitzrayim) is a metaphor for the confining/restricting (meitzar) aspects of our lives. As the Gerrer Rebbe writes:
“The truth is that in every generation there is an ‘Egypt’ for every Jew.” ~Sefat Emet, Exodus, p. 51
By turning Passover inward, these rabbis allowed us to relate to the theme of freedom in a much more personal way. If freedom requires leaving our own “Egypt,” then this holiday becomes a time to confront the question: “What is your Egypt?” i.e. “What prevents you from being who you want to be?”
To be truly free, we must free ourselves from the constraints that hold us back. Those constraints might be thought patterns, behaviors, or actual people in our lives. Passover is a time to take a step forward on our spiritual journey, away from our “Egypt(s)” and towards redemption.
*False, but funny?
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