|Here’s the challenge: It’s 1922 and you are a Rabbi in oppressive, human rights violating, Communist Russia. What words of wisdom or encouragement would you give to your flock on Passover? How could you talk about freedom when some of their basic human rights were being denied? R’ Moshe Feinstein was in this situation 99 years ago and confronted it by asking, 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? How can we celebrate a festival representing freedom?
The answer is that the main idea of being freed from Egypt was not the physical redemption, it was freedom to pursue our true selves. We were no longer slaves who have no control of their lives. Imagine a woman in an abusive relationship. The man who abused her was taken away in handcuffs and upon release was 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 and emotional 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 the Jewish slaves 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? (Ex.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 himself and his country.
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 previous day 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, listen to (and heed) her voice. (Gen. 21:12).
Jews are not supposed to be ruled by emotion; we don’t tell people to believe, we tell them to educate themselves. Our emotions crave comfort and a feelgood life but our intellect knows that whether it is anger management, a relationship, profession or diet, feeling good does not work—effort 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 falling into another poor relationship. She must use her intellect to realize 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 destructive to her new way of thinking, it might even involve working out and dieting so that she can learn how take care of her body. Whatever she chooses to do, her intellect holds the key to 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—failure to allow his intellect to control his emotions.
The final two days of Passover begin tonight and 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 challenge our emotions. If a man is having challenges with his wife and a lovely woman at the office seems to be kind and understanding of his needs, he is now (after the 10 Commandments) expected to reject his seductive emotions and think about the Don’t commit adultery idea. When a woman with a complicated relationship with her mother feels like shutting her out of her life and breaking off all ties with her, she is now (post 10 Commandments) expected not to give into her emotions but rather deal with the Honor your father and mother concept. She doesn’t have to love her mother but she is enjoined, at least, to be decent to her.
A wonderful two-day opportunity begins tonight; it the chance 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 into which family we were born or the degree of innate intelligence with which we were born, but we all were given the ability to use our intellect to shape our attitude in a positive way.
The Jews in Russia 99 years ago dealt with oppression but their attitude in doing so was their choice. This idea allows one in challenging circumstances to feel free because no one can take away your ability to choose how you will deal with a situation. We might not have been born free but we can live free, and the final days of Passover are a time to reconsider some of our life’s choices. (Sources: Darash Moshe #7; Emes l’Yaakov Shemos 14:5)