A seder in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941.
After a series of plagues that crush the country and subdue its king, Pharaoh finally surrenders. After mercilessly torturing, abusing and murdering the Hebrews for decades, they are set free. On the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, the Jewish people, at last, experience a mass exodus from a genocidal regime and a tyrannical monarchy. They have embarked on the path to freedom.
More than three millennia have passed since that day. That is quite a long time. Yet the children and grandchildren of the slaves who departed Egypt still commemorate this event annually. To this day, Passover remains the most widely observed and celebrated Jewish holiday. Many Jews who deem themselves as remote as can be from tradition and religion are still compelled to participate in some sort of Passover seder.
The significance of this cannot be overstated. It is easy to celebrate the miracle of freedom when you are free. Yet for most of their history the Jewish nation found itself exiled, oppressed, dominated—physically, emotionally and religiously—by tyrants and dictators of all stripes. If Passover represents the journey from slavery to freedom, what became of it after the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple and Israel’s subsequent exile? Or after the Greek and then Roman conquest of the Jewish land and the exile of its inhabitants? What happened to the celebration of liberty following the destruction of the Second Temple, the failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion, the horrific Hadrianic persecutions and the long, tragic series of events that led to the greatest exile in Jewish history? Could Jews celebrate emancipation under oppressive circumstances? Could Jews still sit down annually and sincerely declare, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and G-d has liberated us?”
Liberty Under Oppression?
This question was raised by one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 16th century, who was himself subjected to horrible persecutions from Christian authorities. Rabbi Yehuds Leow (1512-1607), known as the Maharal, was chief Rabbi of Prague, and one of the most influential Jewish personalities of his time, author of many major works on Jewish thought. During his day, Jews suffered terribly from the infamous blood-libels, being accused of slaughtering Christian children prior to Passover in order to use their blood for the Passover matzah, and legend has it that Rabbi Leow created a Golem, a man created through Kabbalistic powers to combat the blood libels afflicting the Jewish community of Prague.
The Maharal of Prague wondered aloud(2) how the Jewish people could have celebrated their freedom from Egypt during times when they were plunged back into the darkness of exile and persecution? Could a 2nd century Palestine Jew truly celebrate Passover? How about an 8th century Yemenite Jew? A 14th century Spanish Jew? A 17th century Polish Jew? Or a German Jew in 1938? A Russian Jew in the 1960’s?
Yet celebrate they did. For 3,300 years, as Passover came around, a stubborn nation was determined to re-experience freedom. Under the watchful eye of the Inquisition, in Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago, even in the Warsaw Ghetto, you could hear the same question being asked each year: “Why is this night different than all other nights?” And the answer given: Because tonight we were set free!
How did they manage to do this? Were they irrational escapists, oblivious to reality? Or, perhaps, the Jewish people were celebrating something very authentic they felt in their souls every Passover, despite the often unbearable conditions from without?
The New Man
The answer presented by the Maharal of Prague is profound and moving(2).
The Exodus of Egypt, he suggests, was not merely a political and geographical event, in which slave laborers were allowed to leave a country and forge their own destiny. It was also an existential mutation, in which the gift of freedom was “wired” into the very psyche of a people. With the Divine liberation from Egyptian bondage, a new type of person was created—the Free Man: The individual who will never make peace with oppression and who will forever yearn for liberty. The exodus implanted within the soul of the Jew an innate repulsion toward subjugation and an inherent quest for liberty.
Hence, the entire drama that let up to the Exodus from Egypt: the dialogue with Pharaoh, the miracles performed by Moses and Aaron, the king becoming more obstinate, the ten unparalleled plagues that subdued Egypt, and finally the lavish seder ceremony performed while still in Egypt. In an era when oppression was the norm, when kings were believed to have divine and endless power, and the ordinary human being was at the mercy of whimsical leaders and gods, the Egyptian Exodus was intended to revolutionize the landscape of the human imagination for all of eternity. The Jews would discover—and would be responsible to impart this discovery to all of humanity—that the primary responsibility of every society is to preserve the freedom and dignity of every individual human being under the sovereignty of a free G-d who desired free human beings who choose to construct a world founded on freedom, the dignity of the individual and the moral calling to build a fragment of heaven on planet earth(3).
Thus, even if subsequently conquered and oppressed, targeted for abuse, hunted down like animals, the Jew would never cease to see himself inherently as a free man. He would never acquiesce emotionally to persecution, and would never come to terms with the reality of suppression. He would never stop seeing slavery and exile as the ultimate aberration of reality and the greatest distortion of the human enterprise. His very being would cry out in protest against tyranny and cruelty, and he will incessantly remain obsessed with the belief that the future must be different, that redemption is yet to come, that a society in which evil and corruption rules cannot endure.
This, the Maharal posits, is what Jews celebrated each year at their Passover seders, notwithstanding their deprived circumstances. They were not living in la-la land. They knew very well they were exiled, yet they thanked G-d for the Exodus of old, because it implanted in them for eternity the awareness of freedom, the yearning for freedom, and the conviction that freedom is the innate right of each and every one of them. If – as the Baal Shem Tov brilliantly put it – you are where your will is, this means you are essentially free. If you crave freedom, you are indeed free.
A Divine Gift
The Chassidic masters develop this idea one step deeper. If for some religious thinkers man’s quest for freedom is symptomatic of his craving for frivolous self indulgence and emancipation from the yoke of responsibility, in Jewish mysticism, our yen for freedom is one of our most divine qualities, ingrained within us because of the divine consciousness embedded in the human spirit. Man yearns to reflect G-d. Just as G-d is utterly free, man created in G-d’s image yearns to be utterly divine, hence utterly free. It is this G-dliness inherent in a human being that drives us to constantly challenge and transcend the limits imposed on us, including even the limits of our own nature(4).
How interesting—and tragic—to compare this inspiring observation of the Maharal with the hateful observations made by one of the philosophical leaders of modern Islamic fundamentalism, Sayyid Qutb. In his book “Milestones,” Qutb argues that during their Egyptian captivity the Jews acquired a ‘slavish character.’ As a result they became craven and unprincipled when powerless, and vicious and arrogant when powerful. These traits became eternal Jewish qualities and it accounts for their timeless perfidy, greed, hatefulness, diabolical impulses, and never-ending conspiracies and plots against Muhammad and Islam.
Why Do they Rebel?
This idea of the Maharal contains profound ramifications in the field of contemporary education.
Being that freedom is an intrinsic property of the human soul, a manifestation of its G-dly nature, we must be extremely cautious to encourage, rather than be threatened, by its full and intense expression.
If this is true of every person, how much more so with children and teenagers, who have a particularly profound quest for freedom, for individual self expression, for the liberty to make their own choices and to author their own existence. This is not sinful; it is a noble quality that can be actualized to produce the greatest blessings. If we suppress their liberty, it may compel them to express it in undesirable ways.
So for example, when parents and educators impose upon their children and students values and traditions by means of authority and coercion alone, many of these kids upon adulthood might reject these values. This is not out of disdain for the values per se as much as it is their way to prove to themselves and their environment that they are indeed free.
Education, of course, requires authority and discipline. Children who are granted the license to do whatever they want, often end up having unhappy lives, lacking stability, direction, and security. In the long run, children are unhappy when they are given too much power. On the other hand, when moral and religious values are communicated to youngsters only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, when faith is about dogma rather than depth, when passion is completely replaced by obligation, love by habit, the voice of the soul supplanted by the burden of tradition, the values we hold so dear can be perceived as instruments of oppression in the eyes of our children. In their desperate need for freedom, we sometimes give them no choice but to say goodbye to all we attempted to teach them.
A delicate balance between anarchy and suppression must be maintained. Youngsters must be shown why the traditional, moral and religious values of their parents and grandparents are means for self-actualization, self discovery – and the ultimate freedom. And they must be given wise opportunities to experience the glee of having the freedom to choose that which constitutes the path to a dignified and deep life; the freedom to choose freedom.
1) Exodus 6:6-7. 2) Gevuras HaShem chapter 61. 3) See the incredible commentary to Exodus 6:13 presented in Talmud Yerushalmi tractate Rosh Hashanah 3:5. 4) This is reflective of Maimonides’ famous idea that there are only two free beings: G-d and man. G-d is unique and distinct "in the heavens" because only He is free (the angels, in contrast, are called "holy animals" because, like terrestrial beasts, their every act is dictated by the nature imparted to them by their Creator); man is unique and distinct among all corporeal creations, because he alone possesses free choice. In creating man and "breathing into his nostrils" a soul that is "literally a part" of Himself, G-d created the single creature with a potential for freedom--a potential that is in essence Divine.