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The Time of Our Freedom: A Text Study for Pesach

Staff Ebn LeaderCelebrating freedom is often a challenge. For much of Jewish history, Jews celebrating Pesach had to respond to the challenge of celebrating freedom while living as an oppressed minority. As a result, our tradition is full of teachings and stories about celebrating Pesach and connecting to the essence of freedom even in the most oppressive conditions.

Celebrating Pesach in the great Jewish centers of Israel and the USA in the 21st century poses a different challenge. Most Jews living in those centers experience very high levels of personal and political freedom. At the same time we are acutely aware that oppression per-se has not passed from the world. In some cases, we might actually be implicated as oppressors through our participation in political, financial or social settings. Many Jews are deeply engaged in movements for social justice and peace precisely because they have learned from our history and tradition that injustice and oppression must be battled. The mitzvah – “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” and you therefore have an obligation to help the stranger the widow and the orphan (Devarim 24:18) has and should have special resonance for a generation that is reclaiming the power that accompanies political freedom. The holiday of Pesach, dedicated to the memory of the exodus from Egypt would seem to be the perfect opportunity to highlight such work and our commitment to it

I will however propose that these two mitzvoth, remembering the slavery and remembering the redemption, while deeply connected are also distinct from each other and can at times work towards opposing ends. I will use this setting to argue that over-emphasis of the memory of slavery on Pesach actually undermines the goal of the holiday which is to celebrate freedom, and by doing so undermines the long-term goal of remembering slavery, which is to work against oppression. I will however begin with a teaching about Shabbat from R Nahum of Chernobyl, the Me’or Eynayim:

… The Zohar teaches: “Shabbat is the name of the blessed Holy One, perfect in all aspects” (2:88b). This means that nothing is lacking.

A person engages in work in response to a need. There is something lacking that will be completed through the work. Shabbat, being perfect in all aspects, lacks nothing, and needs no work to fulfill any need.

Therefore our sages taught that you should celebrate Shabbat as if all your work is done and you lack nothing (Mekhilta Yitro). On Shabbat, the completely perfect Divinity spreads forth and reveals itself in the Israelite people. If you behave otherwise [i.e. implying that you still have needs] you demonstrate that you are not part of that community and you act as though the divine Presence did not rest upon you.

But it is not only regular work that is prohibited; even work on the Tabernacle is prohibited on Shabbat. The Tabernacle (mishkan) we are discussing is the one referred to in the verse “I shall dwell (ve-shakhanti) within the Children of Israel” (Ex. 29:45). The blessed Holy One dwells within the Israelite people and you are to become a dwelling place for the divine Presence. But even if you are impure with sin, impeding the dwelling of the Divine within you, on Shabbat you should forget even about this and not let it sadden you. Just keep Shabbat as it should be kept, and rejoice in the blessed One who is total acceptance and joy.

Even the work of the Tabernacle, the work you need to do to become a dwelling place for the Divine, even this should not be done on Shabbat….

(Ma’or Einayim, Parashat Ki-Tissa, Speaking Torah vol. 2, p. 161-162)

The teaching of the Me’or Eynayim is based on a Tannaitic midrash which interestingly focuses on the part of the Shabbat commandment that instructs that work should be done during six days of the week.

“Work for six days, and do all (kol) of your work” – Is it possible for a person to do all of their work in six days? Rather you should practice Shabbat (Shevot) as if all of your work is done

(Mekhilta, BaHodesh 7).

The key to this midrash is the focus on the word “kol” understood as signifying completion. In the question it asks, the Midrash evokes the endless nature of our work, the tasks that we cannot complete. At the same time, it may also evoke the fantasy that this lack of completion is caused by the shortness of time. Perhaps I could actually complete my work if I had one more day? But it is precisely because of the endless nature of our toil that the midrash shifts its understanding of the phrase “kol melachtecha” – all of your work, from describing the work one does to describing the quality of the rest one partakes of on Shabbat. Shabbat, the Midrash teaches us, is not a well-deserved rest following the completion of our tasks. Shabbat is rather a commandment to facilitate an experience of completion for 25 hours in the midst of our never ending work. Seen through this lens the whole project of Shabbat – the prayers, the meals, the rituals and the prohibitions – are all an attempt to achieve this seemingly impossible feat, to “practice Shabbat as if all of your work is done”.

The Me’or Eynayim’s addition to this teaching is to enlarge the category of work. The work that you must imagine completed on Shabbat is not only the external work you do in the world. It is also the internal work you do to make your being and life a dwelling place for God. That is to say, you should celebrate Shabbat as if you have overcome and rectified all of your sins and shortcomings, as if there is truly no more work to be done. To practice Shabbat according to this teaching is to allow myself, one day a week, to just be as I am, as if I had overcome my arrogance, my anger, my impatience and all my other shortcomings. On Shabbat, I do not try to improve or advance my work on any of these; I just allow myself to be.

While it is hard for me to imagine achieving a “perfect Shabbat” by this measure, I have no difficulty understanding the spiritual and psychological importance of the attempt. We humans breathe in and breath out (or as Hassidim are fond of teaching, hahiyyut ratzo vashov – vitality ebbs and flows) so it is of course important to rest even from the most significant work of our lives. But the commandment in this teaching is not just to cease working; it is to imagine that all your work is done. We have a very process oriented tradition, ever aware of the various things that still need tikkun, to which we still need to devote ourselves. The gift of Shabbat (and other holidays) is a momentary experiential reminder of what we are working towards. Shabbat is “m’ein olam haba,” a taste of the world to come, in the sense that the practice of Shabbat creates an opening for the experience of the world as it could be / will be / is, a world in which all our work is done. Shabbat thus serves as an antidote to “burnout” in that it reconnects us (the name Shabbat also evokes the root shuv in the sense of returning) to the experience at the root of all our striving. But for Shabbat to do that we have to be able to let go of our striving…

Like Shabbat, the practice of the holidays also allows a connection to the world we are working towards. Each one of the holidays highlights a specific aspect of Divine being that we can connect to experientially and following the celebration bring back into our daily life. I will propose one understanding of Pesach within this framework, though prior to that I will offer one more general observation.

This model poses a particular challenge to communities in which all or the vast majority of Jewish practice and ritual occurs on Shabbat and holidays or even more specifically on Shabbat and holiday services. A Shabbat devoted to abstaining even from the work of creating God’s dwelling on Earth makes sense only in the context of six days of practice and ritual devoted to creating that dwelling. Otherwise participants could be left with the impression that Judaism is “otherworldly”, interested only in withdrawing from the challenges of this life. To avoid this (I am here describing a conceptual process, not a historical process) some Jewish congregations devote time in Shabbat prayers, study and sermons to emphasizing the significance of tikkun olam or other such forms of personal and communal work that we are required to engage in. In this way, the absence of a weekday practice which could be devoted to such forms of avodah (work/service) impacts the nature of the Shabbat practice.

To set Pesach in this context, I offer the two following teachings from Midrash Rabbah on Shir Hashirim:

Like a lily among the thorns, so is my bride among women” (Song of Songs, 2:2)

R Eliezer applied this verse to the exodus from Egypt. When a lily grows between thorns, the owner has difficulty retrieving it. Thus also redeeming Israel was difficult for the holy One. This is implied in the verse “or has a god ever attempted to take a nation out of a nation” (goy m’kerev goy. Deuteronomy 4). R Yehoshu’a said in the name of R Hannah – the verse does not distinguish between one nation and the other. Both were uncircumcised, both grew their hair and both wore Kil’ayim. Strict judgment would never have allowed Israel to be redeemed.

“I hear the sound of my beloved coming, skipping over mountains, leaping over hills” (Song of Songs, 2:8)

Our masters taught – “the sound of my beloved coming” refers to Moshe when he came and told the Israelites “you will be redeemed this month”. But the people responded – “Our teacher Moshe, how can we be redeemed when all Egypt stinks of our idolatry?”

Moshe responded – Because God desires your redemption, God will not pay attention to your idolatry. God will skip over the mountains – which allude to idolatry as in the verse “they sacrifice on the mountaintops and offer incense upon the hills” – and will redeem you this month. Thus scripture says – “this month is yours” (Exodus 12:2).

(Midrash Rabbah, Shir HaShirim, 2)

What had the Israelites done to deserve redemption from slavery? R Yehoshua’s striking answer is – nothing. The Israelites had totally assimilated into Egyptian culture adopting the same clothing, hairstyle and abandoning circumcision. Indeed the Israelite had become a goy – a non-Jew, among other goyyim (This way of referring to non-Jewish individuals appears already in Tanna’itic texts). There was, as the midrash concludes, no reason to prefer one group over the other

The second teaching of the midrash posits that the Israelites themselves are aware of this situation and do not see themselves as worthy of redemption. Moshe in response does not tell the people that they are worthy. All he says is that God will ignore or pass over their shortcomings and redeem them anyway.

The midrash does not give a reason for God’s choice to redeem the Israelites, though the link to the verses of Shir Hashirim seems to imply that this act is a result of God’s love. It is of course important to pursue the theological implications of this story about a God whose love separates some people from others, but for the purposes of this conversation I will focus on the experience of the Israelite recipient of this love (admittedly, with some universalizing tendencies).

The story of Pesach as told through this lens is the story of undeserved Divine grace. North American Jews do not often speak of this kind of grace, associating it with various Christian theologies. We have grown very committed to the notion that God helps those who help themselves and that we are called to be God’s partners in repairing that which is broken in the world. One could tell the Pesach story through that lens, and I have often heard the story of Nahshon walking into the ocean up to his neck before God split the waters (Mekhilta, Masechta VaYehi, 5) interpreted in that vein. But this midrash (and many other similar rabbinic texts) tells a different story. In this story, the exile of Egypt is a pit so deep that you no longer have the power or the motivation to do anything to get yourself out of there. And the first step away from this exile is not initiated by you nor by any merit you may have. It is a gift of God’s love given to the undeserving, creating opportunity where none existed before. This gift can of course be rejected. It seems that in the midrash the Israelites are close to doing exactly that because they do not feel worthy of such a gift, and it takes Moshe to convince them that God is capable of ignoring all they have done wrong. We are called upon to be receivers of this love, but it is important to realize that this is a very different posture than that of initiating action. This is why in the tradition of Kabbalah and Hassidut the first night of Pesach is referred to as itaruta d’leila – an awakening from above. Like the creation of the world, the redemption of Pesach is a Divine initiative not responding to any human action. (Human initiative is referred to as itaruta d’letata – an awakening from below.) Again, like creation, Pesach is identified with the sefirah of Hesed – unlimited Divine love.

The freedom that we gather around tables to celebrate on the first night of Pesach is the freedom that comes of accepting such grace. It is the joyous acknowledgment that we humans do not control everything; all is not dependent on us. Can you tell the story of setting out on a journey in which you do not have to decide the route, the rest stops or the pace, and in which food, water, and shelter are all provided by someone else? Can you enjoy that story and experience God’s love in it? The most important instruction for the Seder night is – lean back. Recline. There are enough other times in life when you have to lean in…

The memory of our slavery on the first night of Pesach functions differently than throughout the year. On all other nights (and days) the memory of our enslavement is a call to action, a moral demand not to allow others to experience the oppression that we did. But on the first night of Pesach, the memory of slavery serves as a contrast to highlight and intensify our appreciation and joy in God’s redemption. Even the eating of Marror (bitter herbs) is part of the celebration.

Like Shabbat, this experience must also ebb and flow. By the end of the second Seder we are back in counting mode, beginning to count the days until we are ready to receive Torah. The experience of basking in God’s love must have some impact on our daily lives, we must ground it in the reality that we are responsible for. So on the first night of the Omer we begin our avodah at the highest reach of love or as the mekubalim call it – Hesed Sh’beHesed. Then slowly, one day at a time, carefully and meticulously we trace the tracks of that love, finding ways for it to manifest in our lives, until after forty-nine days we have totally grounded it in our reality – Malchut Sh’bemalchut. Then we are ready to receive Torah.

Similar to the relation between Shabbat and weekday practice, here too, the capacity to celebrate this particular freedom on Pesach is dependent on the commitment to the practice of the Omer that follows it. Without the commitment to the process of the Omer, it may indeed feel self-indulging to celebrate freedom rather than focus on oppression. But particularly for those who live with constant awareness of our obligation to fix, one night of freedom may be a tremendous gift of love.


Rabbi Ebn Leader is a faculty member of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA.

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