The Passover seder sets before us a rich array of symbols and ceremonies. At the center of the wealth and diversity of symbolic acts and readings, however, is one central theme which binds them all: “Once we were slaves-now we are free.”
The theme of freedom is expressed in many ways during the seder. We show ownership of our home by inviting guests. We recline against pillows in the fashion of the leisure class. We drink four cups of wine to express the sense of abundance as befits free people. And again and again, we assert our freedom in words.
Slavery and Freedom
At first glance, it would seem that slavery and freedom are precise opposites
– each concept defined as the absence of the other – but liberation from slavery does not by itself confer a state of freedom.
Slavery is a condition wherein one is always subject to the will of another. Freedom is a state of being able to express and act on one’s selfhood and being motivated to do so. Those who do not feel the desire and drive for self-expression and self-fulfillment – because their spirit has been broken by slavery or because they cannot recognize their unique, independent spirit – do not become free once they are unshackled. Rather, they are abandoned slaves, slaves separated from their taskmaster.
The miracle of the Exodus was not complete when the Jews left Egypt. At that point, they were merely runaway slaves. As Abraham ibn Ezra describes it, the Jews, standing on the banks of the Red Sea, genuinely wanted to escape the afflictions of slavery, but – having lived their entire lives as slaves – they were immobilized, unable to sever the powerful connection to their oppressors. Thus, there followed periodic murmurings about returning to Egypt and the idealized lives they had there. Unable to achieve true freedom, the slave generation could not enter the land of Israel to build a free nation.
Exile and Redemption
Just as slavery and freedom are juxtaposed on a personal plane, so exile and redemption can be contrasted on a national plane. Exile is the subservience of a people to a foreign power. Redemption lies in the people’s ability to remove the yoke of exile and emerge as a free nation.
Implicit in the condition of exile is the destruction and subjugation of the national will and its creative energy, as the nation yields to the pressures and dictates of a foreign power. Those who are forced from their land but continue to conduct their lives in accordance with their own principles cannot be considered as being in exile. They are merely sojourning in a foreign land. Exile, like slavery, requires the suppression of self-expression and self-determination.
A person who denies and distorts his essential qualities – and replaces them with the characteristics of his environment – is in exile. This exile is partly a physical condition, like slavery, but its essential quality is spiritual. It is surrender and abdication. It is the acceptance of a set of values, attitudes, and mores antagonistic to the essence of the authentic, distinctive self.
The persecuted Jew was in geographic exile for countless generations, during which he was required to change many aspects of his way of living. A society that was essentially agrarian was forced to become a nation of merchants. An independent people was reduced to bondage, bowed by foreign rule, tossed by every ill wind. As long as the Jewish people cherished and held on to its heritage, to its spiritual principles, and its internal guideposts and behaviors, however, they maintained their spiritual freedom.
In all the years of exile and wandering, Jews had to make peace with their inability to be masters of their own fate in many areas of life, but their exile was not complete because they did not regard themselves as inferior. As long as they retained and nurtured their inner core, their spiritual life not only consoled them, but also served as their homeland, a refuge that could be neither harmed nor diminished.
True exile is accomplished through assimilation, when the Jew loses his unique sense of self and, with it, his independence. The achievement of personal freedom, from a national point of view, is irrelevant: Assimilation makes one’s exile complete, as he is no longer guided by his intrinsic being. The life of the assimilated Jew – both physical and spiritual – is determined by foreign forces only.
Therefore, when the assimilated Jew abdicates his true self, he is in a state of exile, even if others no longer dictate to him how he must conduct himself. He carries the condition of exilewithin him, for he is bereft of his true self, impervious to redemption. The outside world may no longer rule him physically, but it continues to rule him spiritually, and to rob him of his heritage.
A leading Chassidic sage remarked that it is easier to take the Jew out of exile than to take the “exile” out of the Jew. It is not enough that the Jewish people have left the “desert of nations.” We must return to our sources, our spirit, our true way of life and thought, in order to be truly free, truly redeemed.
As we gather at the seder table this year, we must experience the slavery of our ancestors and their evolution to freedom. We must remember the sweet and the bitter in our collective past and ensure the transmission of our shared self with our children. We must convey to them a profound understanding that the final redemption will be achieved only when we fulfill our need to live in our own distinctive way – when we are truly free.