Servant or slave? “Freedom from” vs. “Freedom for”

Purim has come and gone, Spring training is in full swing, tulips and other flowers are up, and that can only mean one thing: Passover is around the corner. The local grocery stores have already placed their displays of matzah and other kosher for Passover items. Online and print media have begun featuring Passover friendly recipes, and Jewish kids everywhere have started rehearsing their favorite parts for their family Passover seders. Rabbis everywhere have already started receiving special requests and appeals to dedicate part of the Passover preparations and observances to various causes. With all this flurry of activity and energy, it is easy to miss the essential lesson of Passover that should inspire us all.

When Moses went to Pharaoh, he pronounced God’s declaration that has been often quoted, but typically incompletely. Moses did not say on God’s behalf simply “Let my people go.” He said, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” Judaism insists that there is a deeper message that we must embrace. “Freedom from” is incomplete with a “freedom for.” With freedom comes responsibility, otherwise it is simply anarchy and chaos. The Hebrew word eved can mean both “slave” and “servant.” Part of the message of Passover is unless we have dedicated our personal freedom to service in a cause larger than ourselves, we are simply unchained slaves. If all we can do is think about ourselves, then we are not really free. While the Haggadah adjures us that we must each see ourselves having been released from Egypt, our individual freedom must be understood in the context of a larger collective. It wasn’t just any one of us who were redeemed, it was ALL of us. Perhaps that is why the Mishnah insists that a community cannot start its Passover observances until even its most indigent have the material means with which to celebrate the Festival. It anticipated by two thousand years the lyrics from the late, great, King of Rock and Soul Solomon Burke, “None of us are free is one of us is chained, none of us are free.”

The chains of poverty can take many forms. Sometimes it is financial. That is why Judaism insists that we share our fiscal resources with others through Maot Hittim (“money for wheat”) so they can celebrate Passover. Sometimes, the poverty is spiritual. That is why Judaism says we open our synagogue doors to those who seek our wisdom and inspiration, be they Jewish or not. Whatever the nature of a particular form of impoverishment, we have an obligation to help lift people beyond it. Perhaps that is the most holy mission of a synagogue: preserving and promoting the dignity of every member of our community.

This Passover, let’s dedicate ourselves to taking the step to being God’s servants. Each of us can find ways to support both the individuals in our community in need, and the needs of the community as a whole. With this commitment will undoubtedly come the blessing of realizing the inspiration and transcendence that comes from being part of something larger than ourselves.

Anne, Miles, and Micah join me in wishing you a joyous Passover.

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