Pesah: Achieving True Freedom
Our Sages, in formulating the text of the Yom Tob prayer, referred to Pesah as “Zeman Herutenu” – “our occasion of freedom.” The central theme of Pesah, then, is freedom.
Tradition teaches that our holidays are not purely commemorative. We do not observe the holidays simply to commemorate events that took place long ago. Rather, the forces that were in play and brought about those events resurface each year on each holiday. This means that on Pesah we do not simply commemorate our attainment of freedom from the Egyptians, but rather have the unique potential to achieve freedom ourselves. On Pesah, the spiritual forces that enable us to achieve freedom are available to us, empowering us to reach this goal.
We might ask, what freedom do we need to achieve? Perhaps if we were living in an oppressive dictatorship, we would relish the opportunity presented by this holiday for praying and working for our freedom. But, thank G-d, we live in a wonderful democracy where we are free to practice our religion, choose our careers, and so on. What kind of freedom should we be aspiring to achieve on Pesah?
This question is borne out of a fundamentally mistaken definition of the term “freedom.” In order to understand what “Herut” (freedom) really means, we need to look in our Torah sources. And the Mishna in Pirkeh Abot tells us very clearly what “Herut” means: “En Lecha Ben Horin Ela Mi She’osek Ba’Torah” – “The only one who is free is one who involves himself in Torah.” Freedom, then, is realized by involving oneself in Torah.
At first glance, this definition seems very strange. Isn’t Torah life the precise opposite of freedom? Is anything more restrictive than Torah law, which dictates what a person may and may not do, eat, speak, and so on, and imposes countless responsibilities upon us?
No society can properly function without a set of enforceable laws. Without a system of laws, chaos would prevail, and nobody would be safe or secure. A human being needs laws to save him from himself, from his own vices. Without laws, we would allow our basest instincts to overcome us and guide our behavior. Laws keep us civil and disciplined, and thus allow us to achieve constructive goals. A person whose life is structured by a framework of laws is truly free, because he is free from his own negative tendencies and vices, and is thus able to pursue and achieve meaningful goals. A person who lives without laws is not free at all, because he is a slave to himself.
Let us imagine two people who are trying to lose weight. One sees a delicious cupcake, and although he knows he should be keeping to a strict diet, he cannot resist and eats it. The second loves cupcakes just as much as the first, but resists, realizing that this is the best thing for him. Who is the free person – the one who eats without restriction, or the one with the strength and will-power to resist temptation? Clearly, the one with the power to do the right thing is the free man.
If laws are what make us free, then we readily understand why Torah life is the ultimate freedom. The Torah is the set of laws given by G-d Himself, who knows better than anybody else what is best for us. No one is freer than one who lives according to the Torah because he follows the rules that enable us to maximize our personal potential and lead the most meaningful life.
On Pesach, we were not taken from Egypt so we could so whatever we wanted. This would be nothing to celebrate. Rather, we were taken from Egypt to become G-d’s people and receive His Torah. We achieved the ultimate “Herut,” and this is what we celebrate on Pesah.
And, as mentioned earlier, we do not merely celebrate past events, but try to tap into the special powers that are accessible during this period. Pesah is especially suited for overcoming addictions, tendencies, negative patterns of behavior, and other forms of “slavery” that we all experience. We all struggle with vices of one kind or another, and this is our opportunity to free ourselves so we can become the people we can and should be. Pesah is the time for us to focus on extricating ourselves from our “enslavement” to bad habits, so we can achieve the freedom to excel and reach lofty goals.