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freedom

The enemies of the Jews could enslave our bodies, but not our spirits.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

One of history’s most celebrated quotes are the words of Moses when he said to Pharaoh: “Let my people go!”

However, what’s often forgotten, is the second half of the verse, which is “so that they should serve Me.”

When speaking of freedom, we must not only address freedom from what, but also, freedom for what.

Moses was not just demanding freedom from backbreaking labour in Egypt…he was demanding freedom to serve God. As the Mishna says ”only one who involves himself in Torah study [and the service of God] is truly free.”

Sometimes, being an observant Jew can feel like anything but freedom. So many rules to follow!

But in truth, we all worship something and have rules, even in our modern, democratic society.

For some people, their job, their phone, or the drive for respect or acceptance “enslave” them, preventing them from being who they truly want to be. For others, fear of failure, money, addictions, or their own bad habits hold them hostage.

As such, in many ways, choosing to serve God actually provides ultimate freedom: freedom to rise above my own physicality, to realize that my base desires are not truly me.

At the Passover Seder, we say: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt… And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors from Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would all be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

Really? Come on?!

The Egyptian empire crumbled thousands of years ago! It’s hard to imagine Jews possibly building pyramids in Egypt today.

But perhaps the meaning of this passage is that if God had not shown us the path to true freedom – the Torah – we would still be slaves at heart. We would still be enslaved to the Pharaohs of our generation, whether technology, public opinion, or our own physicality. We would still be in “Egypt” which in Hebrew, “Mitzrayim”, means the “narrow straits,” of our own slave mentality.

Similarly, the question is asked: Egypt was not the last time Jews were enslaved. Throughout the dark history of exile, Jews lived under foreign rule, forced to behave in certain ways, liable to be tortured or sold or sent away at a moment’s notice. Jews could not practice their religion freely or express their beliefs.

Yet year after year at the Pesach Seder, Jews declare: “We were slaves, now we are free!” How could we consider ourselves free when we are constantly looking over our shoulder?

The answer is that the Exodus from Egypt taught us something profound about true freedom and the essence of a Jew, something which became burnt into our collective consciousness forever more.

Under siege, during crusades and pogroms, and in concentration camps and ghettos, Jew would always recognize that although our enemies could enslave our bodies, they could never enslave our spirit. A Jew is always free. That’s the revolution of Pesach.

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