Parashat Bo: The taste of freedom

Parashat Bo: The taste of freedom

The modern Passover seder traces much of its content to the first Pesach, observed on the eve of the Exodus, as described in Parshat Bo. Prescribed here is the familiar family context of the Passover observance (Exodus 12:3-4); the night-time setting of the celebration (12:6, 42); the central ritual role of matzah and bitter herbs (12:8); the eternal status of the festival (12:14); and its week-long duration (12:15). Here is found the prescribed removal of leaven food-stuffs and the concomitant prohibition of their consumption (12:18). Parshat Bo also provides the Scriptural basis for the Haggadah’s midrashic treatment of the Four Sons and the transmission of national identity and memory from one generation to the next (12:27, etc.). In Parshat Bo we recall the last three among the Ten Plagues: locusts (10:4ff), darkness (10:21ff), and the death of Egypt’s first-born (11:4ff) — all dramatically invoked during our seder observances.

In Parshat Bo is articulated the core commemorative meaning of our sacred celebration: “That very day, the Lord freed the Israelites from the Land of Egypt” (12:51).

While our contemporary celebration of freedom on seder night certainly has its origins in a distant antiquity, countless additions, accretions, and innovations have, happily, kept our Passover observance fresh and compelling to each new generation. The seder thus effectively speaks to the cause of freedom in all its multifarious manifestations, and boldly addresses threats and challenges to that freedom as they arise and metastasize.

For many years now, I have opened my family seder by instructing all participants to pour wine into each other’s Kiddush cups and wine glasses: throughout the evening no one is to pour her or his own wine. From a practical perspective, this “ritual requirement” begins the evening with a light and friendly interaction among family, friends, and guests: “Red or white? Port? Zinfandel? Asti? Concord, Cabernet, or Claret? Say when!”

This increasingly common practice is generally understood as a symbolic expression of freedom, luxury, aristocracy, much like reclining at the seder table. We are served in high style. No longer slaves, we are decidedly and dramatically indulged.

Rabbi Haim Cohen (Israel, 1935-2019; not to be confused with the Israeli Supreme Court justice of the same name) taught that the common explanation for pouring each other’s wine is misguided: the meaning, he insisted, is precisely the opposite. True freedom, Rabbi Cohen understood, resides not in being served and indulged by others. True freedom is found only when we transcend insistence upon our own needs, desires, and convenience, refusing to be enslaved to our own comfort and privilege. To be truly free, we must be prepared to give. It is in service to others that true nobility resides. This convivial opening protocol of the Passover seder — and its profound understanding of freedom — is not about being served. It is about serving others.

Freedom, particularly in a time of pandemic, means willing service to a cause greater than ourselves. We exercise that freedom not by eschewing health and safety restrictions in the name of individual liberty (nor out of caprice, frustration or fatigue) but by doing all in our power (even when frustrated or fatigued) to serve and safeguard the health and well-being of others.

We embody freedom by willingly, eagerly serving the immunological well-being of the public: we mask for others, we are vaccinated in the interests of the public weal, we forego conveniences and pleasures because our own comfort and ease are not paramount. We pour wine for our seder partners because in principled, cheerful, selfless service we achieve an authentic freedom and a bona fide nobility worthy of celebration.

It should come as no surprise that we are taught this lesson by Rabbi Haim Cohen, a much loved, iconoclastically modest, modern Kabbalist. Rabbi Cohen referred to himself as the “Chalban” — the “Milkman” — a self-effacing homage to his ancestral family business and his own long years of hard work as a dairy worker. Having never embraced a life of ease or privilege — though his nobility was widely and gratefully acknowledged — he was eminently qualified to teach the true meaning of freedom. The Chalban would not have us speak and study, sing and celebrate the sacred cause of freedom at our seders while equating that freedom with personal indulgence, entitlement, and convenience.

Rabbi Cohen would not abide such spiritual obtuseness, such shallow moral hypocrisy.

Henry Beecher Ward, the Congregationalist minister, ardent abolitionist, and fellow champion of freedom, articulated the same principle in terms that would have touched the Chalban’s soul:

“It is not well to pray cream and live skim milk.”

This Shabbat Parshat Bo and beyond, may we rededicate ourselves to clarity in the cause of freedom, and may we live out that creed in word and in deed.

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