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Passover, Freedom, and the War on Culture

nulogo4bThe responsibilities of freedom, the history of freedom, and the culture wars that threaten the values and the foundations of civilization.

Listen to my interview on the Bill Martinez show (interview begins at 33:00).

Passover and the price of freedom

next year Jerusalem copyThis Passover, let us all reflect upon the value of freedom, the price of freedom, the responsibilities of freedom, and the cost of taking freedom for granted.  Only by standing strong against the forces within and without that never stop trying to enslave us will we remain free.

The Five Cups of Passover Wine?

fgDD5243517As everyone knows, on the first night of Passover we eat matzah and bitter herbs, we recline at the table, and we drink five cups of wine.

Five cups of wine? We drink four cups of wine, don’t we?

Well, that depends whom you ask.

Of course, it really is only four cups that we drink at the Passover seder. Acceptance of this practice, however, has not always been universal. Rather, it evolved as the best possible compromise between two contradictory Talmudic traditions. And only by going back to the root of the custom can we fully appreciate the relevance of our annual reenactment of the Exodus from Egypt.

The four cups of wine reflect four separate phases that concluded with the Jewish people’s transformation from Egyptian slaves into a free and autonomous nation. Within the narrative of the Exodus itself, four different expressions of redemption allude to the process through which the Jews attained their freedom — a freedom that was not born in an instant, but only as the culmination of four distinct and imperative stages.

Vehotzeisi. And I will take you out from the burdens of Egypt. Although Pharaoh endured ten plagues before he sent the Jews forth from Egypt, only half that many persuaded him to release them from their labors. This enabled the Jews to adjust to independence, to learn what it meant to make their own decisions before the time when they would be held accountable for the choices they would make.

Vehitzalti. And I will rescue you from their service. A slave whose master makes no demands upon him is still a slave. Having already been exempted from their labors, now the Jews were prepared to face the challenges of real freedom.

Vegoalti. And I will redeem you with an outstretched arm. History teaches us that freed slaves often fail to make the adjustment from slavery to freedom. The culture of slavery may be so deeply rooted in their psyches that they cannot succeed as free people. Similarly, the Jews needed divine assistance to purge their hearts and minds of the corrupt values of Egyptian culture, foreshadowing the way Jews all through history have had to struggle against the corrosive influence of foreign ideologies.

Velokachti. And I will take you to Me as a people. Once liberated from the physical and psychological bondage of Egypt, the Jews still faced the subtle dangers of unrestricted freedom. Only with a sense of identity and purpose, only with a clearly defined national mission, could the Jews emerge from cultural anarchy to embrace true freedom.

But there remains one final expression in the narrative of our collective transformation from slaves to free people: Veheiveisi. And I will bring you into the land. As a free and sovereign nation, could the Jewish people begin to fulfill their mission even before they established themselves in their land, in Israel? Or is it impossible for us as Jews to consider ourselves truly free while we remain exiled from our ancestral homeland? This is the essence of the debate whether we drink four or five cups of wine.

vaseWhat is our conclusion? We have none. We simply don’t know. However, we do know that we have to drink at least four cups. So that is what we do, then wait for Elijah the Prophet to come, not to drink the fifth cup, but to tell us whether or not we should drink it ourselves.

But some of us refuse to wait for Elijah to affirm our commitment to the Holy Land. This year, like every year, hundreds of Jewish high school graduates from around the country will defer their first year in college to study Jewish tradition and Jewish law in the land from which we are exiled. No threat of terrorist violence has been able to dissuade these young men and women from renewing their connection to the the heritage and land of their ancestors.

And, perhaps even more impressive, their parents have set aside their own fears and their own worst nightmares to encourage their children to travel half way around the world to pursue their highest calling: to rise to the challenge of Jewish freedom.

Originally published in 2002 by Jewish World Review.

Passover: the Illusion of Freedom

escherAfter generations of slavery and oppression, amidst miracles unprecedented and unrepeated, the Children of Israel marched forth out of Egypt and into the wilderness as a free people for the first time in their collective memory. Fifty days later they stood together at Sinai to receive the Torah — the code of 613 commandments that would define every aspect of their lives.

What happened to freedom? What happened to the promise of redemption when all that really happened was the trading of one master for another?

Much of the modern world has built its understanding of freedom upon Thomas Jefferson’s famous formulation of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But what would life be like in a society of unrestricted freedom? How many of us would choose to live in with no rules at all, where everyone was free to drive on either side of the road, to take whatever they desired regardless of rightful ownership, to indulge every whim and impulse without a thought of accountability? The absolute “freedom” of pure anarchy would provide no protection for the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Consequently, it would provide no freedom at all.

Intuitively, we understand that some freedoms have to be sacrificed in order to preserve order and ensure the common welfare. If so, we are forced to refine our concept of freedom. In contrast to ancient Egypt, in which our ancestors were coerced by the rod and the whip to bow before Pharaoh’s will, the G-d of our redemption allows us the freedom from immediate retribution. By doing so, the Almighty empowers us with the freedom to make our own choices, to take responsibility of our own actions, and to transform ourselves from creatures of physical impulse into beings of spiritual refinement.

Ultimately, the freedom we possess is the freedom to choose our own master, to choose the leaders and system of laws that will best serve our collective interests in the long run.

Because we live in a society with others who also demand freedom, our choices will necessarily be limited by the conventions of society. More significantly, the values of the society in which we live will shape our own attitudes, influencing the ways we think that priorities we hold dear. From the moment we are born, our impressions are determined by others: our parents, our teachers, and our peers, as well as writers, celebrities, sports stars, and advertisers.

How often have we asked ourselves whether the ideas that govern our choices as spouses, as parents, and as community members are truly our own? How often do we stop to reflect whether we have acquired the values that guide us in our relationships and our careers through thoughtful contemplation or through cultural osmosis?

The illusion of freedom convinces us that our own gratification comes before our obligations to others, before even our obligations to ourselves. If we allow our desire for unrestricted freedom to steer our lives, we will find ourselves enslaved by our desires no less than a chain smoker is a slave to his cigarettes or an alcoholic is a slave to his gin. Convinced that freedom is a goal in itself, we will sacrifice everything of true value for the cruel master of self-indulgence. Deceived into believing that responsibility is the antithesis of freedom, we will invest ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, in philosophies like this one:

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, Nothing don’t mean nothing honey if it ain’t free, now now. And feeling good was easy, L-rd, when he sang the blues, You know feeling good was good enough for me, Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.

These are the words that made Janis Joplin into a counterculture idol, before she died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27.

rothead2Less dramatic examples confront us every day. Politicians, movie icons, and athletes destroy their careers and their family lives for a few fleeting moments of pleasure. Parents allow their children to grow up without direction or discipline lest they quash their creativity or damage their egos by imposing structure and meaning upon their lives. A once-productive citizenry increasingly looks to receive support on the backs of others, whether through welfare, lawsuits, or pyramid schemes that leave countless victims footing the bill.

More than anything, Passover celebrates the freedom to think, to take stock of our lives and reassess our values, to take a fresh look at our own motivations and our own decisions, to acknowledge where we may have lost sight of truly meaningful goals and sincerely commit ourselves to striking out on a truer course.

Last year we were slaves to our inner masters; this year we have a chance to set ourselves free to seek the paths of truth and follow them toward the destination of enduring spiritual redemption.

Originally published in 2009 by Jewish World Review.

Passover and the First Holocaust

After yesterday’s terrorist bus bombing in Jerusalem, the first in years, Jews around the world felt the painful reminder of our precarious place among nations dedicated to our destruction.  With the Passover festival approaching, these thoughts from 2005 remind us that Holocaust is not a phenomenon of the last century, or even the last millennium.

The extermination of six million Jews in the Nazi death camps represents but the most recent in a long history of Jewish holocausts. It was preceded by the Chmielnicki massacres in 17th century Poland, the Almohad massacres in 12th century Spain, the Inquisition and the Crusades and the relentless spilling of blood by the Roman legions — all these and similar chapters in the long, brutal history of attempted genocide against the Jewish people.

When did it all begin?

According to Jewish tradition, it began 3328 years ago, when nearly two and a half million Jews died in a single night.

It was the beginning of the plague of darkness, the penultimate blow in the systematic destruction of the Egyptians and their empire. Pharaoh had already released his Jewish slaves from their oppressive labor midway through the cycle of plagues, driven by the desperate hope that he could appease the G-d of the Jews. But he refused to grant them permission to leave.

For some Jews, the relaxation from their burdens offered an opportunity to reflect upon the responsibilities of freedom and the opportunity that had been promised them to build their own nation. For others, however, it gave time to grow comfortable in the paradise that was Egypt, to adopt an attitude of entitlement for their new-found prosperity, to forget that freedom is never free.

During their 210 years as slaves in Egypt, the Jews had gradually absorbed the corrupt values of that culture, its idolatry and its immorality, retaining only their names, their language, and their style of dress to set themselves apart from their Egyptian hosts. With no merit to deserve divine redemption, the Jewish people received their exodus on credit, credit to be repaid by accepting the Ten Commandments at Sinai and committing themselves to the higher moral and ethical standards of G-d’s chosen people.

600,000 Jews — 20% of their total number — accepted these terms, preparing themselves psychologically and physically to exchange the comfort and familiarity of Egypt for the uncertainty of the empty desert. Four times as many rejected the condition, refusing to make good, as it were, on the credit extended them from heaven, convincing themselves that, with the Egyptians humbled and the yoke of slavery removed from their necks, they could void their contract with the Almighty and remain unencumbered in the land of their former servitude.


The human condition, however, is never static. One who stops growing immediately begins to die; one who stops moving forward instantly begins to slip backward. There is no standing still, no place to rest in this restless world, and the 2,400,000 Jews who thought to deny their destiny, who imagined they could stop the sands of time and were buried by them instead.

The fate of the 80% was not divine vengeance; it was spiritual inevitability. To survive for thirty three centuries, the Jewish nation would have to appreciate that it had no alternative other than survival. Assimilation, conversion, or abdication of Jewish identity may at times have seemed an attractive option to the burden of living as Jews, but the consequences of spiritual extinction are every bit as grave — indeed, much more so — than those of physical extinction.

Ask the Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity, only to be called marranos — pigs — by their Christian brothers and to be burned at the stake in the auto-de-fe of the Inquisition, if their abandonment of Jewish identity was worth the price. Ask the assimilated German Jews stripped of their property, forced to wear yellow stars, and incinerated in Nazi crematoria if they met a better end than those who refused to disavow their Judaism.

Indeed, the narrative of the exodus testifies that, as the Jews prepared to leave the ruins of Egypt after the plague upon the firstborn, “the Almighty gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians.” As slaves forfeiting their identity within Egyptian society, the Egyptians regarded the Jews only with disdain. Once the Jews began to act with Jewish dignity, their former oppressors could not help but respect them.

And so it has been ever since. When we live as Jews, the rest of the world respects us for our values and our conviction. When we shirk our responsibility as upholders of morality to accommodated the ever-changing moral whims of the world around us, we bring upon ourselves nothing but suffering.

The freedom we celebrate at Passover is the freedom to remain true to who we are, who we always have been: The nation that introduced the world to the very concept of freedom, and the nation which has shown the world through the ages that the price of freedom is far less dear than the price of forsaking it.

Originally published by Jewish World Review.

Passover: the Freedom to Serve

IMG_0985“This year we are here, next year in Jerusalem! This year we are slaves, next year — free people!”

This is how the Passover seder begins, as Jewish families all over the world prepare to re-experience their people’s historic exodus from Egypt.

Herein lies the essence of the evening and of the holiday: the national transformation from servitude to freedom.  As we well know, Western culture recognizes no loftier ideal than freedom, no more contemptible degradation than slavery.

And yet, there seems to be a contradiction.  When the Jewish patriarch Jacob looked with trepidation at the beginnings of exile as he prepares to lead his family down into Egypt, the Almighty reassured him with the words, “al tiroh avdi Yaakov — Do not fear, My servant Jacob.” The sages observe that only ten were called by G-d, “My servant,” and that there is no greater accolade than to be considered a servant of the Divine.

How can this be? We were servants to Pharaoh in Egypt, and on Passover we celebrate freedom. If freedom is our goal, why is My servant the highest praise with which Jacob and the other luminaries of Jewish tradition can be lauded?

The answer is really self-evident. To serve a higher goal, a higher purpose, or a higher ideal is not servitude at all. It is rather to connect with something greater than oneself and, thereby, to become greater in the process.

On the gate to Harvard Yard these words from university president Charles William Eliot were inscribed over a century ago: Enter to grow in wisdom. Depart better to serve thy country and mankind. One can only hope the message is still heeded. In the language of biblical Hebrew, there is no distinction between service and servitude except the context in which they are used. We were slaves to Pharaoh because we had no choice, because the whips and rods of Pharaoh’s taskmasters bloodied our backs and crippled our bodies if we slackened in our labor. But freedom from Pharaoh gave us the opportunity to enter freely into the service of heaven, to accept upon ourselves the yoke of the Torah and its commandments in devotion to a higher purpose and in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment.

But even so, Pharaoh’s army drowned in the waters of the Sea of Reeds 3,328 years ago. How are the words of the Haggadah, this year we are slaves, still relevant after so many generations?

6a0120a610bec4970c0168ea40b357970cFreedom is not a goal; it is an opportunity — and freedom misused often results in slavery. Is the chain smoker addicted to nicotine truly free? Is the alcoholic who cannot give up his drink or the workaholic who cannot relax from his business truly free? And what of the status seeker who worships designer labels and fancy cars; the teenager who worships the false god of cool; the couch potato who worships his soda and his chips and his remote control; or the anorexic who worships her skeletal reflection in the mirror and imagines herself a goddess — is any one of them truly free?

Finally, what of the cosmopolitan, the progressive, the enlightened thinker who has cast off what he believes to be the shackles of tradition in favor of the values of modern society, the rational humanist who believes himself to be the better judge of morals and ethics than the eternal transmission of his own heritage? Is he truly free, or has he not in fact allowed himself to become the unwitting slave of yet another master?

This year we have been slaves — slaves to our prejudices and biases, slaves to our own impulses and egos, slaves to the expectations of the culture that surrounds us. But Passover reminds us that we are as free as we choose to be, that we alone hold the keys to the chains that hold us back from acquiring the most precious gift of all — a closer relationship with the ultimate Master.

Originally published in 2004 by Jewish World Review.