The main idea of Passover is not merely abstaining from bread, cake, crackers, and other leavened products, it is to identify with the theme of the holiday. Freedom is what we focus on during Passover. We were freed from the Egyptians, as we say in the Haggadah, Had not the Holy One taken our ancestors out of Egypt, the we, our children, and our children’s children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. In 1922, in Luban, Communist (i.e. oppressive) Russia, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein asked the following question in a sermon: How can we celebrate freedom when we have been constantly persecuted, exiled, and harassed? Are we really free if we are denied equal rights and protection in the countries in which we live? (Although we have been blessed with freedom in America, it is a new phenomenon.) Getting back to the question asked almost 100 years ago in a small Russian town; how can we (Jews living under the violent oppression of communism) celebrate a festival representing freedom?
The answer is that when G-d brought the Jews out of Egypt, the main idea was not the physical redemption, it was freedom to pursue our true selves. Imagine a woman in an abusive relationship. The man who abused her was taken away in handcuffs and issued a restraining order; she is now free to move on in life. But instead of finding a new emotionally stable relationship or spending time by herself or with a therapist to understand how she remained for so long in that relationship, she finds another abusive man and enters into a new dysfunctional relationship. She was given physical freedom but remained enslaved to the same psychological-i.e. spiritual-restraints that prevented her from leading a fulfilling life.
If the Exodus was just to remove a physical servitude, it would not have been necessary to take them out. Surely G-d could have bettered their plight without causing them to leave Egypt. The main consequence of their leaving was to remove them from the destructive moral forces and psychological limitations of Egypt.
Three days after leaving Egypt, Pharaoh said, What have we done that we have sent away the Jews from serving us? (Exodus 14:5) This is an odd remark; did they have sudden amnesia about the Ten Plagues and all the resulting pain and destruction? Similarly, when the sea split, the logical deduction would have been to retreat due to that miraculous event done for the Israelites but the Egyptians pursued the Jews into the sea floor and were decimated. If Pharaoh put aside logic-i.e. his intellect-at such obvious times, we see it was not the ruling force in his decisions affecting person and state.
Abraham and Sara were the first Jews. Abraham did not discover G-d through emotion, it was through intellect. He realized that an inanimate idol created the day before could not logically have any power. When Sara decided that Ishmael and his mother had to be removed from their home, Abraham did not allow his fatherly emotion and trait of extreme kindness to cloud his judgement-he listened to G-d’s directive: whatever Sarah tells you, hearken to her voice. (Genesis 21:12). Jews are not supposed to be ruled by emotion; we don’t tell people to believe, we tell them to educate themselves. Before making a decision to disconnect yourself from Judaism, use your mind to study about the language, history, and value system that has kept a people alive under the harshest circumstances. The emotion wants comfort and a feel good life but the intellect knows that whether it is anger management, a relationship, profession or diet, feeling good does not work; hard work and commitment are the requisite tools for a meaningful life. The abused woman mentioned earlier has only one defense against defaulting to her emotions and going into another poor relationship. She must use her intellect and realize that she needs to do something drastic to change the destructive cycle of her life. It might mean being uncomfortable in weekly therapy sessions, it might mean bearing the pain of breaking long friendships that are destructive to her new way of thinking; it might mean working out and dieting so that she learns how take care of her body. Whatever she chooses to do, it is her intellect that holds the key to her change.
The Almighty freed the Jews from bondage in order to free them from the moral depravity and limitations of Egypt. The leader of that nation represented the force behind it-lack of intellect. The final two days of Passover begin tonight and they commemorate the splitting of the Sea and the Jewish people finally being able to free themselves from the Egyptians. They would soon receive the Ten Commandments; ten statements that would challenge their emotions. If a man was having challenges with his wife and a lovely woman at the office seemed kind and understanding of his needs, he would now be expected not to give into his emotions and think about the Don’t commit adultery idea. When a woman had complicated relationship with her mother and felt (i.e. her emotions told her) like breaking off all ties with her mother, she would now be expected not to give into her emotions but rather deal with the Honor your father and mother concept.
There is a wonderful two day opportunity beginning tonight to spend time thinking and working on a plan to be truly free. It is not about physical servitude, it is about the limitations we place on ourselves due to anger, fear, ego, laziness and other things that have prevented us from getting the happiness we deserve. We had no choice of which family we were born into or the degree of innate intelligence we were born with but we all were given the ability to use our intellect to live a happy life. We might not have been born free but we can live free. The end of Passover is a time to reconsider some of our life’s choices. When you are doing so, don’t forget to ask yourself, does being Jewish play any role in the decisions I make and how I lead my life.
(Sources: Darash Moshe #7; Emes l’Yaakov; A Daily Dose of Torah v. 14 pp. 73-74; pp. 77-78)