The theme the Rabbinic sages chose to emphasize for the festival of Pesach is “z’man cheruteinu” – the time of our freedom. We use this expression in the holiday’s Amidah and in its Kiddush. Obviously, the attention and focus of Pesach is to be centered on freedom, and what it means to us as Jews.
We should know. Our freedoms have often been curtailed. But while most are familiar with that memorable battle cry “Let my people go,” used to protest the Soviet Union’s unfair treatment of Jews, not too many can finish the sentence. It was first used by Moses who challenged Pharaoh to let the people go. But the message did not stop with those words.
The complete statement goes like this: “Let my people go, so that they can serve me (God) in the desert”. The people were to swap the ruthless and merciless slavery of Egypt with divine worship. While Egyptian bondage carried no reward, only suffering, divine servitude would bring benefit and gain. By establishing a relationship with God at Mount Sinai, the people would be able to lead a life of blessing and accomplishment.
This was highlighted by the famous tablets of stone upon which were etched the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew word for engraving is spelled the same way as the word for freedom. The engraved writing was a reference to the freedom that is accomplished by keeping and observing the commandments.
Jewish freedom is thus defined as, first, freedom from physical slavery, but also, using that freedom to become subservient to a higher supreme being – God.
In truth, most people don’t see it that way. Religion is viewed by many as the greatest burden of all. Religious commitment is seen as being far removed from being free. Perhaps the following story will help to clarify why this approach is misguided.
A man was seen struggling with a heavy sack slung over his shoulder. The weather was hot and humid, making his task arduous and tiring. To compound his misery, the road began to slope upwards. A passer-by, clearly intrigued by this individual, asked him what was in the sack. The man replied that he was carrying rocks and stones.
He persisted to inquire as to the weight of the sack. The reply was not long in coming; it was quite heavy and laborious, he said with a long sigh. To his exasperation and annoyance, the man then asked him if he would be interested in having some more stones added to the load. The reaction to this ridiculous suggestion is totally predictable and understandable!
Now let’s imagine the same man walking along, in the same heat and in identical conditions. But this time, in response to the question about the contents of the sack, he replies that he is carrying diamonds, rubies, and other precious stones. When asked if the sack is heavy, again the reply is in the affirmative. But when asked if he would like to have more added, how do you think he would react? Of course, it would be an emphatic yes!
The different reactions in the two stories are reasonable and logical. Although the man was carrying a substantial load on a very warm day, and up a hill, the contents of the sack were highly influential to his condition and well-being. When it was mere rocks, it was a real effort, but the knowledge that a great fortune was in the bag helped to lighten that burden.
In the same way, the reaction we have towards our responsibilities, particularly to the mitzvot that we are directed to perform, depends entirely on our approach to them. They could be burdensome like rocks or treasured like precious and expensive diamonds.
Indeed, we are encouraged to view mitzvot as just that; precious and special. Yes, it is not always easy to observe Shabbat, to eat kosher, to pray, or to study Torah. But the knowledge that we are accumulating precious cargo is surely the best stimulus to overcome any and all doubts.
Yes, Judaism makes one free. But first one must liberate the mind and realize just how valuable its opportunities are. It is why freedom was chosen as Pesach’s symbol.