Rabbi O’s Weekly: Passover 5780-2020The Essential Element to Joyful Freedom

 Imagine yourself as the leader of an enslaved nation. You have much power on your side and you know you will be able to overpower the reigning monarch who has enslaved your nation for centuries. The time of liberation has finally come and you, the leader of this persecuted nation, will be the one to confront the megalomaniac monarch to let him know. How would your speech sound; what would you say?  You might speak about the atrocities of enslaving human beings, the loss of dignity, the lack of humanity, or some other travesty associated with slavery. Your address would be forceful and rouse the crowd as the soon to be defeated ruler helplessly listens. This was the scenario when Moses went to speak with Pharaoh. He was the spokesman for a persecuted people but his message was nothing like the one described above. He says they need to leave because ‘we have a holiday to celebrate.’ (Exodus 823). This seems anti-climactic. No fist slamming on the table, no voice raising or memorable slogans like “we will no longer put up with this,” “you don’t own us,” “justice is finally being be carried out” or some other similar remark.  It’s a simple statement of fact; G-d has commanded us to leave in order that we can serve Him.  We have a festival, let us go. How can we understand Moses’ anti-climactic speech?In order to be liberated, you have to be committed to something you find meaningful. Freedom by itself is worthless if you don’t have something significant to live for. In the book Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century Tera W. Hunter documents numerous cases of freed men and women who chose to become slaves in order to be with the person they loved. One example is Percy Ann Martin, a free woman married to an enslaved man in North Carolina, who petitioned the court to “reduce her to slavery” because “she was attached to her husband and does not wish to be separated from him.” In another case, a man forced out of Virginia moved to Ohio after being freed, but grew to regret it. He decided to make a horrifying reversal back to Virginia because he “would prefer returning to slavery to losing the society of his wife.” These are just two examples of an important idea related to being free; what good is it if you don’t have something to live for. Many people would prefer to choose love, a noble cause, or a calling rather than outright freedom.What happens when you have freedom but no clear commitment to something or someone? You can end up choosing to be a slave to things that don’t give you meaning.  When we aren’t committed to something, we are vulnerable and run the risk of feeling trapped in situations. It might be, “I can’t quit this job or relationship because I don’t know what else I’ll do.” If you are committed to something, decisions become clearer because you know what you stand for. A person might choose to stay in a marriage for the sake of the children, but then the person knows what (s)he is living for. A person might remain at an unfulfilling job because (s)he needs to support the family. Someone else might leave the job because (s)he feels stifled. If you aren’t clear on what gives you meaning, you remain a slave to whatever situation you find yourself.The issue central to slavery is that you are denying a person the ability to fulfill the mission in life that G-d gave them.  We can’t be someone else’s slave because we are already committed to the purpose G-d gave us when He created us. If I was never a slave (because I had a prior commitment), I can’t ever be emancipated or escape. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Viktor Frankl, a German Jewish psychiatrist who spent three years as a prisoner in Auschwitz, famously said, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” If a free person allows his emotions to be dictators rather than indicators, in a certain way, a man in Auschwitz, the type Dr. Frankl spoke about, has the possibility to be freer than his counterpart outside the campThe main point of Passover is not that we came out of slavery, it’s that G-d took us out of slavery. When that happened, it became clear that there was a purpose to our freedom. Moses didn’t make a dramatic speech to Pharaoh, he merely needed to let him know that the Jewish people had to leave to fulfill their purpose-to be the first ones to celebrate Passover, a festival whose purpose was to ingrain in us that G-d cares; He didn’t create the world and then abandon it. He saved a persecuted nation and they in turn would bare the responsibility of transmitting great ideas to the world.This Passover, we are trapped in our homes. We can’t be with family; we have to spend it alone or, at best, with a small segment of the family-and we can’t have guests either. It’s the first Passover in thousands of years (actually, the first in history) that we can’t invite whomever we would like. “Let all who are hungry join us,” will be said this year at the Seder but we won’t really mean it. That being said, this year’s Seder presents an unusual and beautiful opportunity because this this year we will truly sit in freedom, a freedom which emanates from knowing we are committed to being Jewish. We might not be able to celebrate this Passover exactly as we would like but what’s significant is that we have something to celebrate. We recount the stories our parents and grandparents told, and their parents and grandparents told-all the way back to the Exodus. It’s the story of a nation who saw their freedom as having the responsibility to bring concepts like value of life, public education, equality under the law, social action, and so many other values and opportunities for meaning to the rest of humanity.  Although COVID-19 has forced us to be locked down in our homes, we are as free as ever because we have something to live for. This year’s message will be the same as last’s year’s and the same as it has been for thousands of years.  We rejoice in our freedom; a freedom emanating from meaning and commitment.  Chag Samayach/Happy Passover
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 Good Shabbos
Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center