Are You a Freed Slave or A Free Person

Enjoy Rabbi Oppenheim’s insights into Passover aspects Weekly Torah Reading: Metzora (Leviticus 14-15)
(Being as Passover is a bit more than ten days away, we will discuss different aspects of Passover for the next two weeks)

Are You a Freed Slave or A Free Person

Anyone who has attended even one Passover Seder knows how prominent the number 4 is during the first two nights of Passover. There are Four Questions, Four Sons, Four Cups of wine, and four expressions of redemption mentioned in the Haggadah.

Therefore, say to the children of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me as a nation-at Mount Sinai, and I will be a God to you, and you will know that I am the Lord your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
(Exodus 6:6-7) Each of the four times that redemption is alluded to in the verses above, which we read at the Seder, a different stage of redemption occurred. “I will bring you out,” refers to the Ten Plagues because they were the first step in the process of redemption. “I will save you” refers to the moment the Jewish people left the Egyptian borders. “I will redeem you” refers to the Egyptians drowning in the sea. This was the true point of redemption because when the Jewish people saw their Egyptian masters drowning, they no longer considered themselves runaway slaves; they were free people. The final verse, “I will take you to Me as a nation,” refers to Mount Sinai.

Question: Why are four expressions of redemption (or why were four redemptions) necessary?
The answer gives us an important lesson in the challenge of changing our impressions of ourselves. The Jewish people were unjustly enslaved for hundreds of years and were taken out of Egypt by miraculous intervention from the Almighty, yet they still couldn’t rid themselves of feeling like slaves. When they left Egypt they viewed themselves as freed slaves but not as free people. There’s a world of difference between a person who feels like a slave who is free as opposed to a free man or woman. The Almighty needed to perform the miracle at the Red Sea so that the Jewish people could see the bodies of their former masters washed up on shore to drive home the point that they were really free people. They needed to see it with their own eyes for them to change their image of themselves.

What is the most common reason people remain stagnant in their relationships, careers, education, and other crucial areas in life? People fail to appreciate the lack of their own greatness. One can watch TED talks all day long, attend marriage seminars, read self-help books or memorize the Sales Bible (the most popular book on successful selling) but if the person thinks (s)he is incapable or that his/her spouse, boss, or friends won’t take him/her seriously, then all the wonderful tools and advice are worthless. A person might look like a free man or woman but (s)he is a slave to past personal history. “If I failed in the past at work, relationships, or school, it seems I’m just not someone who can grow to greater heights.” The tragedy of this attitude is that the person’s past is determining his future; (s) he views himself/herself as one who doesn’t have free will because (s)he is destined to live according to his/her past history.

The main theme of Passover is freedom. G-d had to perform the miracle of splitting the Sea and throwing the drowned Egyptians on shore because He knew the Jewish people needed it in order for them to change their mentality from freed slaves to free people. The Egyptians were a cruel nation who murdered and persecuted innocent Jews for hundreds of years and G-d could have destroyed them in a number of ways but He chose one that would be an act of kindness to a battered Jewish nation. He wanted to give the Jews the gift of freedom and understood the frailty of the human psyche. It wasn’t enough to simply give them their freedom; they also needed an experience that would actually allow them to feel free.

We live in a country that allows for more personal freedom than any country or civilization in the history of the world. We can live wherever we want, marry whomever we choose, work in the field of our choice, and go to the educational institutions of our choice (i.e. if we do what it takes to get and remain there). Yet with all this freedom, people feel trapped in their relationships, jobs, and many other areas of life. They are free to make choices and carry out actions to change their situation but they don’t think they can. The objective reality is that they are free but their low view of themselves and their capabilities makes them see themselves as enslaved. To such people we may ask, what good is it to be free if you don’t feel free?

This idea applies to one’s Judaism. People are deep and complex, and find various practices in Judaism significant. For some it’s eating kosher food because it causes them to identify with being Jewish. Others find that personal prayer provides a safe haven for their thoughts and fears and others enjoy learning Torah, the source of everything Jewish-and some Jews are scared to give anything Jewish a try. Why? They are scared of what others will think of them or perhaps what they will think of themselves because it goes against the paradigm of the Judaism they have lived their entire lives. They know there’s something there but they won’t access it because they are slaves to their thoughts and fears. They might have the innate abilities of free people but they have the mindset of a slave.

Who’s your master? Are you scared to be a more supportive spouse because you’ll feel like a wimp? Are you scared to get commitment in a long-term relationship because you are scared the other person will end the relationship and then what will you do? Are you scared to audition for a play you love because you don’t believe you deserve that part and don’t want to look foolish in front of others? Have you refrained from putting in your application for a better position at work because you feel everyone is more qualified than you (even though you know many others who have applied have less talent and credentials than you?)

Since the splitting of the Red Sea, G-d hasn’t performed too many public miracles and therefore we don’t have the luxury the Jews had thousands of years ago. Even though they were free, they felt like slaves; G-d helped them to overcome their mental state of slavery and allowed them to actually feel free. Today it’s up to us. G-d gave every one of us a powerful resource called the soul; it’s pure and wants to grow and we have only ourselves to blame when we remain stagnant. Today, we have to make our own miracle; we have to escape from the slavery we impose on ourselves.
Passover is about freedom. This year at the Seder and during the duration of holiday ask yourself, am I a freed slave or a free person.

(Source: Majesty of Man: Torah Insights into Human Nature by Rav Henach Leibowitz).