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The Miracle of Freedom

Pesah occurs in the spring which "has always been suggestive of the beginning and the survival of the Jewish people. ... As the springtide of nature fills each creature with joy and hope, so Israel's feast of redemption promises the great day of liberty to those who still chafe under the yoke of oppression." (Encyclopedia of Jewish Concepts) The words of Heinrich Heine still ring true: "Jews who long have drifted from the faith of their fathers ... are stirred in their inmost parts when the old, familiar Passover sounds chance to fall upon their ears."

On Passover the Jewish people, together with all of humanity, is reminded of the value of human freedom which has been termed "the mother of all values." "It is called to remember again and again its days of bondage, not because it enjoyed the bondage but because of its horror. And it is reminded repeatedly that since it is free it must be careful not to inflict bondage on others." (Jay G. Williams) In Abraham Lincoln's formulation, "those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves." The spirit of Pesah resounds in Martin Luther King's immortal words: "When we let freedom ring. ..we will be able to speed up the day when all of God's children. ..will be able to join hands and sing. ..'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!' "

One need not accept all the miracles associated with Passover in the Bible as literal fact in order to realize that the Passover festival is itself a miracle. Thomas Jefferson spoke of eternal vigilance as the price of freedom. For the Jewish people Pesah is an annual reminder and enactment of that eternal vigilance. The Haggadah proclaims that in every generation each person should view himself as having been personally liberated from bondage. When we eat the matzah we recite that "this is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come in and celebrate Pesah with us."

In the instructions for the observance of the festival (in the Mishnah) we read: "Even the poorest Jew, a recipient of charity, must, on the eve of Passover, eat only in a reclining position, as a mark of freedom, and drink no less than four cups of wine." According to Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, "the conception of God as the redeemer of the oppressed has revolutionized the meaning and function of religion, and has placed it at the service of the ethical impulses... The people of Israel, having been born in redemption from bondage, has the love of freedom and the sense of human dignity deeply engraved in its consciousness."

Probably the most significant development in recent years in our understanding of the nature of people has been a growing awareness of the function of purposes, values, and goals. Outstanding psychiatrists such as Viktor E. Frankl view the will-to-meaning rather than the will-to-power, pleasure, or happiness as the primary motivational force. "One of the best ways to give ourselves form and to fill life with meaning," wrote the late Erwin R. Goodenough, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Yale, "is to accept the basic tradition, of our society, its moral traditions, its legal tradition, and its seasonal festivities in the deeper virtues of kindness, integrity, respect for one another, which are the basis of law and ethics; and in the act of identifying oneself with the seasonal festivities life gets a sense of form and meaning not otherwise to be achieved."

Pesah is rich in teaching and practices which bring purpose and value into the life of the Jew. The outstanding implications of festival for human behavior is conveyed in the statement of the Haggadah: "In every generation a person should view himself as though he personally came forth out of Egypt." On Pesah, the Jew's thoughts turn not only to the exodus from Egypt, to the Pesah that was, but also to the Pesah that is to be (Pesah Le-atid). Pesah bids us devote ourselves to the goals of freedom, salvation, and fulfillment for all people, symbolized by the Jewish vision of the coming of the messianic era and establishment of the divine kingdom on earth. "He who does not himself remember that God let him out of Egypt, he himself who does not await the Messiah," wrote Buber, "is no longer a true Jew." With the unique opportunity it provides us to renew our self-understanding, self-respect, and self-confidence as Jews, and to rededicate ourselves to attainment of liberty and dignity for all, Pesah is itself one of the greatest miracles.

Type: Dvar Torah