Freedom is within our grasp
Pesach or Passover, one of the major Jewish holidays, fascinates, inspires, and instructs me about the world and myself. Some may wonder why this is so. I don’t have just one answer and those I do have are equally important to me. Before I try to explain it, I want to say that mine isn’t and can’t be viewed as any regular theological exegesis. I’m not a theologian.
When I think of Pesach, when I look at it, I do it through the lens of who I am and my own life experiences. I’m a Jew. I’m a Polish Jew living in America. Therefore, first and foremost, Pesach to me is the festival which commemorates the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt, the foundation story of Jewish peoplehood. It is the first major festival instituted in the Torah that not only celebrates national liberation but dramatizes the critical belief, recurrent throughout the Bible, that God hears the cries of the oppressed.
Every year I look forward to a Seder and to reading the Haggadah. The Passover Seder is full of unique and memorable rituals and traditions. However, the Maggid is the heart of the Seder. The Maggid is comprised of various biblical and rabbinical texts which recount and expound upon the Exodus from Egypt, the meaning of Passover, the value of freedom, the gift of divine providence, and the importance of Jewish tradition. It isn’t just a celebration of the past long gone, or a commemoration of the deeds and legacy of our forefathers. As Judaism teaches, that story didn’t end, it continues. As a Jew, I’m part of it too.
During Pesach, maybe more than usual, I come to recognize the importance of l’dor v’dor, which is Hebrew for “generation to generation.” The Torah and Jewish sages have taught for millennia that all family members, as the agents of socialization, play an important role in shaping who our children will become, and what the future of Yiddishkeit (Jewish way of life) is going to look like. They instil character, and often embody values and traditions to be passed on to their own children and families. Hence, I see it also as my role and responsibility as a Jewish father, and as a member of the Jewish people.
But it isn’t just Jews to whom the message of Pesach appeals, and who find it timely and relevant to the world which we inhabit. Having lived for most of my life in a predominantly non-Jewish environment, it seems to me (and I’ve heard about it a great deal during numerous conversations conducted with many gentile friends) that what makes Pesach significant and just as inspiring for many non-Jews is its universal, humanistic message. Many lessons and ideas can be drawn from it. So many of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, have had our Exodus, escaping from the Egypts of enslavement and trying to reach the Promised Lands. It makes Pesach such a profoundly human experience, one to which anyone can relate.
Born and raised in Poland, I lived the first 22 years of my life under Communism, and witnessed first-hand its fall in 1989, also known as the Fall of the Peoples. I lived through the period of high hopes and the bitter setbacks and disappointments of the transition to democracy in Poland and other former Soviet satellite states. It was the disintegration of the Soviet Union. As a Jewish Polish-American, over the last few years, I’ve been increasingly troubled by the rising tide of the populist, antidemocratic, authoritarian, and xenophobic (not only anti-Semitic) tendencies both in the US, Poland, and around the world.
Pesach tells the story of slavery and liberation, a complicated journey to freedom. Read in 2021, it may resonate with many contemporary men and women around the world. As in ancient Egypt, modern slavery takes various forms—for example, human trafficking, forced labor, slavery of children, or forced and early marriage. The severe exploitation of other people is their common denominator. According to the major international human rights organizations, some 40 million people worldwide are estimated to be currently trapped in modern slavery.
Modern slavery is all around us, but often just out of sight. There are many women, men, and even children entrapped through making our clothes in sweatshops, serving our food, picking our crops, working in factories, or working in houses as cooks, cleaners or nannies. From the outside, it can look like a normal job, like a regular life. It is not.
People are being controlled—they can face violence or threats, be forced into inescapable debt, have their passport taken away, or be threatened with deportation. Many have fallen into this oppressive trap simply because they were trying to escape poverty or insecurity, improve their lives, and support their families. Now, they can’t leave. “Let my people go.”
Pesach also teaches us that spiritual enslavement is as dangerous as the lack of physical freedom. There will always be those who are ready to run away from freedom—trade it for a bowl of lentils, or for the illusion of a better life. Freedom should never be taken for granted; freedom requires constant effort and maturity. It is not surprising then that the Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land. According to many Torah scholars, during this long sojourn the Israelites were to get rid of the habits of slaves in order to become people capable of living in freedom and with responsibility. A long journey to freedom required (and still does) a lot of hope and perseverance, and that’s what we’re in need of today, when so often it’s difficult to remain optimistic.
For me, an immigrant, there is a powerful lesson to take from Pesach, especially nowadays. I see the Passover seder as a unique teaching opportunity that allows us to retell the story of the Exodus, and to relive the story with ritual foods and symbols that reflect the dynamic of moving from slavery to freedom. Pesach is a story that has shaped the identity, consciousness and values of the Jewish people. During the seder, we Jews literally taste the bitterness of our oppression and are reminded of what it is feels like to be the stranger—unwelcomed, without rights or protection, subject to oppression, cruelty and slavery, with no one to come to our aid. The Pesach rituals are meant for us to cultivate empathy for all those who are labeled as “the stranger,” and for all who are oppressed. How could I forget about or ignore it when, by the end of 2019, there were 79.5 million individuals forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. The Torah insists: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). It is a call for me to be an agent of change, to keep building a better world. For all. Tikkun olam.
Let me conclude these brief remarks by highlighting another, personally important way of interpreting the Pesach story, and that is as a warning:
The last several years have been quite tumultuous—certainly in the US, and especially during the last four years. Many books, essays, numerous talks and recorded webinars have addressed and examined the phenomena of populism, fake news, or various manifestations of xenophobia, and the very concerning authoritarian tendencies observed in various parts of the globe from many, not only scientific, points of view. Nihil novi sub sole, one may say. The Pesach story has it all. One of the passages of the Pesach narrative comes to mind here. In was in Moses’ absence (when he was on Mount Sinai with G-d for 40 days and 40 nights), that the incident of the Golden Calf occurred. There have been many interpretations of what happened. I find one of them to be particularly appealing to me as it can help us, people living in the third decade of the 21st century, comprehend and respond to the social and political challenges of our times. Some rabbis and other Torah scholars conclude that the Golden Calf scandal (and we have frequently seen a very similar modus operandi in many post-Communist societies, including my native Poland since 1989) is a reminder, and even a warning, that although the Israelites gained freedom from slavery and left Egypt, Egypt still remained in them: in their psyche, in their habits of learned helplessness, and in an outer-directedness. Although they left behind their oppressors, in fact many Israelites still felt a need for the kind of dictatorial rule they had experienced under Pharaoh. That existential fear that many of our forefathers felt has been shared by many generations of both Jews and gentiles who have come after Moshe Rabbenu (Moses Our Teacher) and his contemporaries. Including us—you and me.
“The exodus from Egypt [as taught by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov] occurs in every human being, in every era, in every year, and in every day.” To quote the great South African fighter for democracy and justice, Nelson Mandela: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
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Tomasz Herzog is a Professor of Social Foundations of Education and Social Studies Education at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, USA.
His interests include social justice, social change, educational ideologies, and political culture (in particular, the role of higher education and public intellectuals as agents of change; religion in the public sphere; contemporary political history of Central Europe).
His degrees include a Ph.D. (Educational Studies), an M.A. (Sociology), and a B.A. (Philosophy) from Adam Mickiewicz University Poznań, Poland). He also completed non-degree graduate studies in Civic Education, Educational Leadership, and Educational Policy at The George Washington University and Georgetown University (Washington D.C., USA).