Spring is in the air. It is Passover, the celebration not only of the change of seasons but also the commemoration of our liberation from bondage to freedom, the beginnings of the Jewish people.
Of course, Passover is a uniquely Jewish holiday, steeped in ethics and memories of our own experience. But it is a holiday whose message has resonated in the souls of many peoples and nations, in the quest for freedom.
Freedom, in order to be preserved, requires responsibility to the poor, to the disenfranchised, to the unliberated and the oppressed all over the world. The Jewish soul cannot rest until all are free.
“Let my people go so that they may worship me.” The latter part of this famous cry for freedom in the Book of Exodus is often left out. The purpose of freedom is to better the world; we call it “to worship” or “to serve” God in making this world a kingdom of God on earth.
I am writing this message a few weeks before Pesach but I think that this year’s Passover is a reminder in a world often dominated by terror, autocrats and oppression, that we in a few selected countries enjoy the privilege to vote and choose our elected leaders. The Pharaohs of the world are not chosen.
We might complain about our elected officials, but we have the freedom – and responsibility – to choose them from among many. Freedom in the coming election for this nation’s future in May; freedom exercised in Israel – Israel’s democracy is often chaotic and volatile but the people have chosen their next government in a swarm of nations surrounding her that know nothing of democratic choice; and in my country, the USA, next year will see another round of debates, primaries and the final vote in November 2016 for the next President. Cheers to all three nations!
Passover also allows us to ponder why God created our people and to ask what has been the uniqueness of Judaism, our message, since our liberation from Egypt in approximately 1290 BCE. I suggest the following possible answers for what we have taught the world:
- Freedom must lead to education and learning. Literacy and knowledge leads to the right behaviour among us: Talmud Torah k’neged kulam, the study of Torah is equal to all other Commandments.
- Freedom involves passionate and sincere debate. Many points of view, many paths of discovery and respect for the differences among us lie at the heart of religious faith.
- It is OK to ask questions about everything: faith, religion, politics, social values, history, literature, freedom, justice. A society that suppresses the right to ask questions is a society of Pharaohs. In too many other places in the world, people still do not have the right to challenge what they have been taught and to question whether it is true.
- Absolutism, fundamentalism, certainty of belief is the kiss of doom to freedom. Freedom means that we continue to search for the truth. It never teaches us that all truth is revealed and known. Fundamentalism of the type the West is struggling against today leads to violence and intolerance, as was the case in the former Soviet Union, today’s Iran and other terrorist-based entities.
- The chiddush, that which is new, is to be cherished. Religion is not just to preserve the past but is meant to stimulate our search for new solutions, a more just society, a more moral society.
- Seeking the “good”, morality, is the heart of true freedom, the basis of the Ten Commandments. Ours is a God who “brought us out of the land of Egypt”, not a distant God who created the universe but a God who cares the most about the way we treat other people – the heart of all religious life.
- Making this world a place where God can truly dwell, a kingdom of peace on earth, is our most important quest and vision. It is our behaviour that counts the most, not what we believe. To seek each day a path that can lead us toward making this world into what it ought to be tomorrow should be the essence of every human being on earth.
Some day … some day … Adonai Echad u’shmo Echad – The Lord is One and His Name will be One.
My wishes to you and your loved ones for a blessed, rich, tasty, freedom-filled Passover with family and community.
Chag Pesach sameach to all.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler