By Rabbi YY Jacobson
After a series of plagues that crush the country and subdue its king, Paroh finally surrenders. After mercilessly torturing, abusing and murdering the Jews for decades, they are set free. On the fifteenth day of the month of Nissan, the Jewish people, at last, experience a mass exodus from a genocidal regime and a tyrannical monarchy. They have embarked on the path to freedom.
More than three millennia have passed since that day. That is quite a long time. Yet the children and grandchildren of the slaves who departed Mitzrayim still commemorate this event annually. To this day, Pesach remains the most widely observed and celebrated Jewish holiday. Many Jews who deem themselves as remote as can be from tradition and religion are still compelled to participate in some sort of Pesach seder.
The significance of this cannot be overstated. It is easy to celebrate the miracle of freedom when you are free. Yet for most of their history the Jewish nation found itself exiled, oppressed, dominated-physically, emotionally and religiously-by tyrants and dictators of all stripes. If Pesach represents the journey from slavery to freedom, what became of it after the Babylonian destruction of the First Bais Hamikdosh and Klal Yisroel’s subsequent exile? Or after the Greek and then Roman conquest of the Jewish land and the exile of its inhabitants? What happened to the celebration of liberty following the destruction of the Second Bais Hamikdosh, the failure of the Bar Kochva rebellion, the horrific Hadrianic persecutions and the long, tragic series of events that led to the greatest exile in Jewish history? Could Jews celebrate emancipation under oppressive circumstances? Could Jews still sit down annually and sincerely declare, “We were slaves to Paroh in Mitzrayim and Hashem has liberated us?”
Liberty Under Oppression?
This question was raised by one of the great gedolim of the 16th century, who was himself subjected to horrible persecutions from Christian authorities. Rav Yehudah Lowy (1512-1607), known as the Maharal, was chief Rabbi of Prague, and one of the most influential Jewish personalities of his time, author of many major works on Jewish thought. During his day, Jews suffered terribly from the infamous blood-libels, being accused of slaughtering Christian children prior to Pesach in order to use their blood for the matzah, and legend has it that the Maharal created a Golem, a man created through Kabbalistic powers to combat the blood libels afflicting the Jewish community of Prague.
The Maharal of Prague wondered aloud how the Jewish people could have celebrated their freedom from Egypt during times when they were plunged back into the darkness of exile and persecution? Could a 2nd century Palestine Jew truly celebrate Pesach? How about an 8th century Yemenite Jew? A 14th century Spanish Jew? A 17th century Polish Jew? Or a German Jew in 1938? A Russian Jew in the 1960s?
Yet celebrate they did. For 3,300 years, as Pesach came around, a stubborn nation was determined to re-experience freedom. Under the watchful eye of the Inquisition, in Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago, even in the Warsaw Ghetto, you could hear the same question being asked each year: “Why is this night different than all other nights?” And the answer given: Because tonight we were set free!
How did they manage to do this? Were they irrational escapists, oblivious to reality? Or, perhaps, the Jewish people were celebrating something very authentic they felt in their souls every Pesach, despite the often unbearable conditions from without?
The New Man
The answer presented by the Maharal of Prague is profound and moving.
The Exodus of Mitzrayim, he suggests, was not merely a political and geographical event, in which slave laborers were allowed to leave a country and forge their own destiny. It was also an existential mutation, in which the gift of freedom was “wired” into the very psyche of a people. With the Divine liberation from Egyptian bondage, a new type of person was created-the Free Man: The individual who will never make peace with oppression and who will forever yearn for liberty. The exodus implanted within the soul of the Jew an innate repulsion toward subjugation and an inherent quest for liberty.
Hence, the entire drama that let up to the Exodus from Egypt: the dialogue with Paroh, the miracles performed by Moshe and Aharon, the king becoming more obstinate, the ten unparalleled plagues that subdued Egypt, and finally the lavish seder ceremony performed while still in Egypt. In an era when oppression was the norm, when kings were believed to have divine and endless power, and the ordinary human being was at the mercy of whimsical leaders and gods, the Egyptian Exodus was intended to revolutionize the landscape of the human imagination for all of eternity. The Jews would discover-and would be responsible to impart this discovery to all of humanity-that the primary responsibility of every society is to preserve the freedom and dignity of every individual human being under the sovereignty of a free G-d who desired free human beings who choose to construct a world founded on freedom, the dignity of the individual and the moral calling to build a fragment of heaven on planet earth.
Thus, even if subsequently conquered and oppressed, targeted for abuse, hunted down like animals, the Jew would never cease to see himself inherently as a free man. He would never acquiesce emotionally to persecution, and would never come to terms with the reality of suppression. He would never stop seeing slavery and exile as the ultimate aberration of reality and the greatest distortion of the human enterprise. His very being would cry out in protest against tyranny and cruelty, and he will incessantly remain obsessed with the belief that the future must be different, that redemption is yet to come, that a society in which evil and corruption rules cannot endure.
This, the Maharal posits, is what Jews celebrated each year at their Pesach seders, notwithstanding their deprived circumstances. They were not living in la-la land. They knew very well they were exiled, yet they thanked G-d for the Exodus of old, because it implanted in them for eternity the awareness of freedom, the yearning for freedom, and the conviction that freedom is the innate right of each and every one of them. If – as the Baal Shem Tov brilliantly put it – you are where your will is, this means you are essentially free. If you crave freedom, you are indeed free.
A Divine Gift
The Chassidic masters develop this idea one step deeper. If for some religious thinkers man’s quest for freedom is symptomatic of his craving for frivolous self indulgence and emancipation from the yoke of responsibility, in Kabbolah, our yen for freedom is one of our most divine qualities, ingrained within us because of the divine consciousness embedded in the human spirit. Man yearns to reflect G-d. Just as G-d is utterly free, man created in G-d’s image yearns to be utterly divine, hence utterly free. It is this G-dliness inherent in a human being that drives us to constantly challenge and transcend the limits imposed on us, including even the limits of our own nature.
How interesting-and tragic-to compare this inspiring observation of the Maharal with the hateful observations made by one of the philosophical leaders of modern Islamic fundamentalism, Sayyid Qutb. In his book “Milestones,” Qutb argues that during their Egyptian captivity the Jews acquired a ‘slavish character.’ As a result they became craven and unprincipled when powerless, and vicious and arrogant when powerful. These traits became eternal Jewish qualities and it accounts for their timeless perfidy, greed, hatefulness, diabolical impulses, and never-ending conspiracies and plots against Islam’s prophet and Islam.
Why Do they Rebel?
This idea of the Maharal contains profound ramifications in the field of contemporary education.
Being that freedom is an intrinsic property of the human soul, a manifestation of its G-dly nature, we must be extremely cautious to encourage, rather than be threatened, by its full and intense expression.
If this is true of every person, how much more so with children and teenagers, who have a particularly profound quest for freedom, for individual self expression, for the liberty to make their own choices and to author their own existence. This is not sinful; it is a noble quality that can be actualized to produce the greatest blessings. If we suppress their liberty, it may compel them to express it in undesirable ways.
So for example, when parents and educators impose upon their children and students values and traditions by means of authority and coercion alone, many of these kids upon adulthood might reject these values. This is not out of disdain for the values per se as much as it is their way to prove to themselves and their environment that they are indeed free.
Education, of course, requires authority and discipline. Children who are granted the license to do whatever they want, often end up having unhappy lives, lacking stability, direction, and security. In the long run, children are unhappy when they are given too much power. On the other hand, when moral and religious values are communicated to youngsters only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, when faith is about dogma rather than depth, when passion is completely replaced by obligation, love by habit, the voice of the soul supplanted by the burden of tradition, the values we hold so dear can be perceived as instruments of oppression in the eyes of our children. In their desperate need for freedom, we sometimes give them no choice but to say goodbye to all we attempted to teach them.
A delicate balance between anarchy and suppression must be maintained. Youngsters must be shown why the traditional, moral and religious values of their parents and grandparents are means for self-actualization, self discovery – and the ultimate freedom. And they must be given wise opportunities to experience the glee of having the freedom to choose that which constitutes the path to a dignified and deep life; the freedom to choose freedom.