Rabbi Binyomin Halpern: A new twist on Passover freedom

by Rabbi Binyomin Halpern

Rabbi Binyomin Halpern

(AJNews) – Two years ago we sat together around the seder table.  With great fervor and anticipation, we reverently recited the immortal words of the hagada

“hashata hacha, leshana haba’a beara deyisrael,”

This year we are here, next year may we be in the land of Israel! (With the redemption.)

“hashata avdei, leshana haba’ah benei chorin”

This year we are slaves, next year may we be free!

As we gather around the table again this year, we have a bit more of an insight into the meaning of this statement. Sadly, this year we were slaves in many ways. Imprisoned in our homes, we were locked away from family, friends and perhaps even our shul. We have been pinned back with fear for our physical well-being, financial uncertainty and personal loss. We have been barred from celebrating milestones, and from gathering to learn and share together.

But we have begun to taste freedom.  As I write these words, every day I hear how more and more of us are getting access to vaccines and can begin to plan accordingly.

Perhaps then we can have a sliver of imagination of what it must have been like for the Jewish people to march triumphantly out of Egypt.

But where did they march to? At least for us, we have destinations to get to.  (The barber, dentist and the gym to name a few!)  But what destination did the children of Israel have to direct their newfound freedom?  Ultimately, they went straight into the wilderness and stayed there (in quarantine!) for the next 40 years. Most of them, including Moshe, were no longer alive by the time the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel.

So how do we understand this freedom?

Perhaps we can gain a perspective from a Mishna in Pirkei Avot.

Seven weeks after the Exodus, the Jewish people received the luchot, (tablets) and indeed the entirety of the Torah, at Mt. Sinai.

In Parshat Ki Tisa, which we read recently, a brief description is given for the Luchot.

“vehaluchot maaseh elokim heima, vehamichtav michtav elokim hu, charut al haluchot”

The tablets were G-d’s handiwork, and the script was the script of Hashem, engraved on the tablets” (Exodus 32:16)

It is striking that the word “charut,” or engraved, is spelled with exactly the same letters as the word “cheirut” which means freedom. Says the Mishna in Pirkeit Avot[1], there is a deeper lesson here. A message of freedom, and about who truly is free and in fact has ultimate freedom.

The tablets represented the ultimate Divine directive and therefore says the Mishna

“Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’osaik betalmud torah”

No one is as free as the one who learns Torah.

So learning about Hashem, His Torah and commandments is freedom. But why should this be? What exactly is the connection between freedom and Torah learning? (In fact, I suspect that a number of schoolchildren will tell you that they wouldn’t mind a break from this ‘freedom’ every once in a while!)

The meaning is as follows. Yes, I can be free to leave my house, and go anywhere I want. But at the same time I can be very much enslaved. Enslaved to my habits, my wants and needs, and in general to myself. But there is another part of me as well. A noble soul that yearns for an elevated life, a life of purpose and generosity. That is where Torah comes in. By providing a plan, direction, and a calling to live beyond ourselves, we can truly empower our inner selves and our truer selves.[2]

With Hashem’s help, we will be less restricted in the coming months. There are going to be ‘firsts.’  Things we can do again for the first time in a long time.  But which part of us is going to get the first serving? Is it going to be an indulgence that is ‘just for me’, that we have had to forgo for over a year?  Or is it going to be something a little bit bigger.  Something for family, for a neighbor, for Torah or for G-d?

We have many questions already in the Seder text.  But perhaps this year, as we celebrate our freedoms both ancient and modern, we should ponder the following:

“Yes, I am Jewish and yes I am free. Now what am I going to do about it, and how soon?”

Malka and I wish everyone a Chag Kasher Vesameach, a joyous and meaningful Passover.

Rabbi Binyomin Halpern is the spiritual leader of House of Jacob-Mikveh Israel. He welcomes any feedback on this article and is passionate about any Jewish discussion. He can be reached at rabbi.hojmi@gmail.com


[1] 6:2

[2] See commentary of Tiferet Yisrael, Avot 6:2

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