Passover 5776/2016 Lessons In Personal Freedom from the Civil War, Kierkegaard and Pesach

If we could sum up the entire holiday of Passover in one word it would be “freedom.” We became free on a national level and ultimately that allowed us to be free as individuals. Herein lays the challenge: there may no longer be shackles on the people but if they don’t change their mentality and actually choose to live as free people, then the nation’s freedom is worthless. Let’s look at more recent history. After the Civil War, one freed man, Houston Hartsfield Holloway, wrote, “For we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.” Both the masters and the former slaves had to learn how to deal with freedom as a reality, not an abstract concept. Jews in the 21st century might have unprecedented freedom, but do we know how to be free Jews?

Being a free Jew means taking responsibility for whatever level of Judaism one chooses. Whether one chooses a life of commitment to the Mitzvos of the Torah or whether one chooses to remain distant from them and/or from the Jewish community, one must ask, what are the ramifications of the Jewish lifestyle choices I have selected? What effect will it have on the next generation? The intellectually honest person will understand that if one chooses not to be connected to Judaism or the Jewish community, chances are (i.e. the statistics are) that person’s children will opt out of being Jewish. Whether the child’s decision is conscious or unconscious is inconsequential; the thing that matters is the result. The tragic consequence will be that the next generation will not be a conduit to transmit some of the gifts (value of life, peace, public education, equality under the law-all unknown in the ancient world) that Jews have given the world. On the other hand, if one chooses to be more connected to Judaism and/or the Jewish community, (s)he must take responsibility for that commitment, which might manifest itself through various commitments (financial, educating oneself, understanding that you are a role model for Jews and non-Jews, et al). No matter what your choice is, you must be authentic and recognize the ramifications of your decision and the actions resulting from it.

Making or participating in a Passover Seder is a freedom we all have and with that freedom comes a question any thinking person must grapple with: did the events we recount-the Ten Plagues, leaving Egypt, the splitting of the sea-really happen or are they mere folklore; the apparent intellectual will surely choose the latter. One who believes these events really occurred would seem to be a simpleton, who would be embarrassed to share that view publically or at a board meeting in some mainstream Jewish organization. Here’s the question the apparent intellectual must ask himself/herself: if I don’t believe in any of this stuff, why do I gather with family and friends every year to tell a fairy tale? Is it worth cleaning the house, putting the bread, cake, and crackers aside, preparing the food, and bearing the expense…just to tell a story?! Granted it’s nice to be with family and friends, but the Super Bowl or even Thanksgiving would be a much more time and cost-effective way of doing that. Furthermore, how is the story told? At the Seder with a Haggadah. The word “Seder” means order. Does it make sense to have such regulation and uniformity just to tell a fable? Is there a civilization, culture or folklore society anywhere in the world that has a history of thousands of years of loyalty of telling their story in such a standardized manner and going through all the tension, preparation, and cost-just to relate an old legend?

My purpose in writing this is not to turn the reader into a believer in the Exodus story, but to get the intellectual to think though his or her position to its logical end.

Soren Kierkegaard, the profound 19th century Danish philosopher once wrote, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” This Pesach (the holiday representing freedom) ask yourself, are my thoughts on Judaism free or are they merely the regurgitated ideas I heard as a child? Do I feel comfortable expressing and challenging my thoughts with others? If not, how free am I?

Good Shabbos/Chag Sameach