The Liberation In PassoverWednesday, April 5, 2017
In a few days, Jews all over the world will celebrate Passover. Of the Jewish practices measured by the Pew Forum, participation in a Passover seder has the highest observance rate — well above other traditions such as fasting any portion of Yom Kippur, or lighting Shabbat candles. According to Pew’s data from 2013, some 70 percent of American Jews attended a seder in the previous year. In Israel that number soars to 93 percent. Together with the High Holy Days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, it’s the most important Jewish holiday of the year.
Jews work assiduously in preparation, cleaning the leaven out of our homes, and – hopefully – out of our hearts at the same time. The Torah commands us to avoid leavened products and to clear our homes from them in several places, including Exodus 12. And the punishment for eating leavened products on Passover is extremely serious – excommunication.
It’s safe to say that Passover expresses and marks the narrative core of the Jewish experience: We were slaves. Then God heard our suffering, intervened, redeemed us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and suddenly we were free.
Well yes. And no.
It turns out to be a lot easier to take the people out of Egypt than it is to take the Egypt out of the people.
The opposite of slavery is not non-slavery. But really, there is no such thing. We are limited, finite, created beings. We are always slaves to something – at the very least to the frailties of our human bodies. And so often to other things as well: our egos, the State, temptation, materialism, despair.
The list goes on and on. There is no real freedom for us. As the Bob Dylan song goes “You gotta serve somebody.”
This is why the seder night of Pesach is actually “just” the first, exciting critical moment in an unfolding drama that lasts fifty days. It’s not the end of something: Pesach is much more about the beginning of something.
From the night after the seder night, observant Jews start to count. And count. And count. As commanded in Leviticus 23:15–16 we orally and with great intentionality count our way day by day through the “seven weeks”, and then to the 50th day of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks). This is the source for the Christian celebration of Pentecost 50 days after Easter Sunday. At Shavuot we celebrate God’s giving of the Torah to Moses and the children of Israel at Sinai.
Physical freedom and redemption are critically necessary, but not sufficient. We must always look toward completing this process with the spiritual freedom and redemption that comes through the giving of the Law.
At Passover we were freed from slavery to Pharoah. At Shavuot we accept on ourselves to be slaves to the only true Master, the King of Kings.