Passover and Freedom (Pesach and Cherut)

Pesach is probably the most widely known of all of the Jewish holidays. And if we would ask people what is its central theme, almost everyone would give the same answer — freedom. After all, the central focus of the holiday is the journey of the Jewish people from slavery to freedom. And, in fact, the kiddush we say at the beginning of the seder calls Pesachzman cheiruteinu — the time of our freedom.” That certainly seems to make a lot of sense.

However, this understanding of Pesach is not as simple as it first appears. The mishnah in Pirkei Avot (6:2) declares — “There is no ben chorin (free person) other than one who is immersed in the study of the Torah.” There are two questions we could ask about this mishnah:

1. Isn’t the opposite true? Shouldn’t “immersion in the study of the Torah” actually limit our freedom? After all, the Torah is filled with lots of obligations and prohibitions.
2. If “immersion in the study of the Torah” is really an essential aspect of freedom, how could Pesach be “zman cheiruteinu — the time of our freedom”? We got the Torah only 50 days after Pesach, during the holiday of Shavuot!

My Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, used to stress the importance of “defining our terms.” Let us, therefore, ask ourselves — what exactly is freedom? The simple understanding is that freedom is the ability to do whatever you want — no one making you do anything, or preventing you from doing anything.

There is, however, an obvious question we could ask on this. Even without anyone else either forcing you to do something, or stopping you from doing something, a person can still be quite limited. Take the example of a drug addict or an alcoholic. While no one else is coercing him do anything, he is still very constrained by his addiction.

Therefore, it appears that we need to modify our definition of freedom. Not only does freedom mean no one else constraining you, but rather no constraints at all — neither external nor internal. This is what my Rosh HaYeshiva used to call the ability to do what you really want, not what you feel like. The lack of external constraints alone is what we could call “license,” not freedom.

How can we get past our internal constraints, do what we really want to do, and be truly free? This requires a lot of clarity, understanding and guidelines. Anyone that wants to be successful in any area of life realizes this. That is why we recognize the value of marriage counselors, business consultants, and coaches. We not only appreciate them telling us what we should and should not do, we actually pay them very well for this service. This is really what the mishnah in Pirkei Avot (6:2) is telling us — “There is no free person other than one that is immersed in the study of the Torah.” As the designer of the universe and mankind, the clarity, understanding and guidelines that G-d put into the Torah will necessarily be the best to get us past our constraints, and to thereby achieve true freedom. 

While this explains the statement itself in Pirkei Avot and addresses the first question, we still need to understand the second question — How could Pesach be called “zman cheiruteinu — the time of our freedom” if we got the Torah only 50 days later, during the holiday of Shavuot?

“The Holiday of Matzot” — Simply Free

Let’s first examine the kiddush. Interestingly, while we commonly refer to the holiday as Pesach (Passover), the kiddush (based on the Torah) calls it “Chag haMatzot” (the holiday of Matzot). Parenthetically, this is a beautiful insight into how to have a successful relationship. What does the word Pesach (Passover) refer to? The fact that G-d “passed over” the Jewish houses, with the blood on their doorposts, during the tenth plague of the killing of the firstborn. And what is indicated by the name “Chag haMatzot” (the holiday of Matzot)? The fact that the Jews baked matzot in preparation for their liberation from Egypt. By calling the holiday Pesach, we are focusing on what G-d did for us — He passed over our houses and spared us from the tenth plague. And by the Torah referring to the holiday as “Chag haMatzot” (the holiday of Matzot), G-d (so to speak) is highlighting the baking of the matzot, which is what we did. This is the mark of an ideal relationship — each side is focused on the contribution of the other one.

In any case, we see from the name “Chag haMatzot” (the holiday of Matzot) that matzah is central to the meaning of Pesach. Let’s think about the significance of matzah. First of all, what exactly is matzah? Matzah is a mixture of flour and water baked together. As the simplest possible prepared food, with these two ingredients alone, it expresses simplicity and purity.

Simplicity and purity are fundamentally connected to freedom. One connection is the idea of getting back to basics. The less dependent we are on externals, the freer we are from them. This is also the key to enjoying those externals. Recognizing the extras in our lives for what they really are, reminds us that they are actually luxuries. And everyone, of course, appreciates luxuries much more than necessities.

Closely related to this is the importance of returning to a simplicity and purity within ourselves during Pesach. Our true essence is the pure soul that simply wants to do good. Matzah, as the embodiment of simplicity and purity, therefore serves as a symbol of the yeitzer hatov (the desire that we all have to do the right thing).

Natan Sharansky, one of the most famous of the refuseniks (the Jews that Russia prevented from going to Israel for many years), beautifully articulated this pure desire of the soul when speaking about the years he was imprisoned in Russia — “From the time I decided never to make a moral compromise, I was free.” 

This touches on a fascinating point. The initial definition we suggested for freedom was the ability to do whatever one wants — with no one else forcing or preventing us from anything. We then explained that, even with no external constraints, one’s freedom could still be limited by internal constraints (like addiction). Now we see that, beyond merely having no external constraints, not only is a lack of internal constraints important for freedom —  it is actually the essence of freedom. Sharansky’s refusal to morally compromise with the evil of the Soviet Union resulted in many years of imprisonment. However, while he was severely constrained externally, he was internally very free. Conversely, one that is internally constrained while externally free, like an independently wealthy alcoholic, has virtually no freedom at all. 

This helps to explain why the purity and simplicity of the matzah is a very appropriate expression of the freedom of Pesach. However, we still need to understand how this relates to the message of Pirkei Avot that Torah is essential for freedom.

Two Requirements for Freedom

As important as purity and simplicity are, they are not sufficient on their own to ensure freedom. This is expressed very sharply in a well-known saying — “The road to hell is paved with good intentions!”

True freedom really requires two different elements. First one needs moral integrity — the commitment to do what is right. But then, of course, one also needs the clarity to know what actually is right.

What happened at the time of Pesach? The Jews were enslaved in Egypt, the quintessential evil society. They were miraculously able to escape that evil society and begin traveling toward G-d and Har Sinai (Mount Sinai). Pesach, therefore, expresses the concept of moral integrity — the commitment to do what is right. This is also what Sharansky expressed regarding his imprisonment in Russia.

And in terms of the second aspect — the clarity to know what is actually proper — that is exactly what the Jewish people received when they got the Torah at Har Sinai at the time of Shavuot.

In other words, it was only the combination of the moral integrity of Pesach, plus the clarity of knowing what is right on Shavuot, which together gave the Jews a true and complete freedom. 

This, however, brings us back to the second question we began with — If “the study of the Torah” is critical for freedom, which it certainly seems to be, then how could Pesach itself be “zman cheiruteinu — the time of our freedom” when we got the Torah only 50 days after Pesach, during the holiday of Shavuot!

One Component without the Other?

 While the Jewish people did not achieve a complete freedom until they had experienced both Pesach and Shavuot, did they accomplish anything significant with Pesach alone? Or, to express this more conceptually, is there a value to moral integrity even without a complete clarity of knowing of what is right?

The example of Sharansky imprisoned in Russia, once again, addresses this very well. He had a remarkable commitment to doing the right thing even though he had never had any formal Torah education. And even so, he was an extraordinary moral role model.

It is important to appreciate that there is a huge difference between the Pesach aspect of freedom and the Shavuot aspect when we view them independently of one another. Moral integrity, the commitment to do what is right, is a strong value in and of itself. This is particularly true since the great majority of the situations we face in our lives are relatively straightforward moral issues. As an example, think about the challenges that Sharansky faced while in prison — to turn his friends in to the authorities, to give up on his dream on making aliya, and to sign a false confession. While he needed incredible strength to stand up to the massive pressure that the Russians exerted upon him, these types of issues were relatively black and white in terms of knowing what was right. {Interestingly, now that Sharansky is out of prison and involved in politics, his fundamental integrity is no longer sufficient. At this point, clear moral guidelines are really essential!} 

The Shavuot aspect of knowing what is right, on the other hand, is a very different story. As we have discussed, it is a critically important clarification once one is already committed to doing the right thing. This is what ensures that the pure commitment will actually stay focused and on target. But by itself, it has virtually no value or function. Without a solid moral integrity, merely knowing what is right would be purely academic. It would be like someone who could tell you the differences between the ethical systems of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hume, with no interest whatsoever in following any of them.

Pesach coming before Shavuot teaches us that integrity must precede the clarity of the moral guidelines. Otherwise, one can simply manipulate the guidelines to justify whatever one already feels like doing. This is what we call rationalization.

“Zman Cheiruteinu” and “Ben Chorin” — Degrees of Freedom

Although the mishnah in Pirkei Avot teaches us that our freedom will certainly be limited without clear moral guidelines, the fact that the holiday of Pesach by itself is called “zman cheiruteinu — the time of our freedom,” tells us something very significant. Not only is moral integrity the first stage of freedom; even by itself, it is the essence of freedom.

If we look closely at the language of the kiddush vs. the mishnah in Pirkei Avot, we will see an important distinction. The kiddush refers to Pesach as “zman cheiruteinu — the time of our freedom.” When the mishnah in Pirkei Avot states the importance of moral guidelines to freedom, however, it uses different terminology — “There is no ben chorin (free person) other than one who is immersed in the study of the Torah.”

What is the difference between “zman cheiruteinu — the time of our freedom” and a “ben chorin (free person)?” A ben chorin, literally a “child of freedom” refers to someone who has not merely achieved a measure of freedom, but actually embodies freedom. Similarly, there is a huge difference between one who learns Torah, and a ben Torah — one whose entire life is centered around learning Torah. And while we all hope to get to Olam Haba (the world to come), that is very different from being a ben Olam Haba, one whose entire life is focused on Olam Haba.

Pesach by itself is “zman cheiruteinu — the time of our freedom,” because the desire and commitment to do good, is the essence of and key to freedom. But it is only with the critical addition of Shavuot, and the guidelines of what is good contained within the Torah, that one can become a ben chorin — a completely free person.

The Double Commitment of Na’aseh V’Nishmah

The goal of Pesach, expressed by the matzah, is a pure and simple commitment to a life of morality and a relationship with G-d.

The goal of Shavuot, the time of the giving of the Torah, is a commitment to clarify what morality and a relationship with G-d practically entail. 

This is really what the Jewish people expressed when they famously said “na’aseh v’nishmah — we will do and we will learn.” The first step (i.e., the “Pesach step”) is the basic commitment to observe the system and to follow the rules. The second step (i.e., the “Shavuot step”) is the commitment to finding out what the system and the rules actually are.

The obvious question which is asked on “na’aseh v’nishmah — we will do and we will learn” is, how can one commit to observe a system and to follow its rules before one clearly knows what that system and those rules actually are? A similar question could be asked about the Jewish people leaving Egypt. On what basis did they follow Moshe into the desert? The deep connection which they ultimately achieved at Har Sinai to both G-d and Torah was still many weeks away. The answer is, that even prior to Sinai the Jewish people had much on which to base their trust of G-d and Torah. The 10 plagues, in which G-d obliterated Egypt while leaving the Jews unscathed, showed a tremendous love and commitment that G-d had for the Jews. And they felt this even more deeply with the splitting of the sea, when they saw the Egyptian army, their terrible oppressors, drowned, while being saved themselves.

Ultimately, every new process and undertaking involves some form of “na’aseh v’nishmah — we will do and we will learn.” The fact is that we can never really know what a new job, project, or relationship involves until we have already committed to starting it. Therefore, with every beginning, the first step is to determine if we have enough information for a basic level of trust. As was mentioned previously with the name of the holiday – each side was focused on what the other one had done. The Jews saw that G-d had “passed over” them while destroying the Egyptians, and G-d saw the determination of the Jews to leave Egypt with their baking of the matzot. This assessment by the Jewish people that they could rely on G-d, and that they were, therefore, able to leave the slavery of Egypt and embrace the freedom of connecting with G-d in the desert is essentially what happened during the time of Pesach. And this has similarly remained the message and the opportunity of Pesach up until the present day. At that time, the Jewish people began their national relationship with G-d and Torah. And it is our task, in every generation since then, to reaffirm our trust in G-d, and to recommit ourselves to maintaining that ideal relationship, every year moving forward.

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