”In each and every generation” – and in fact every single year – we are obligated to see ourselves as having personally left the slavery of Egypt, no doubt an educational and experiential tool designed to fully sensitize us to the meaning of the holiday!
Or, perhaps, do each one of us in some literal way actually experience the Exodus again and again… last year, this year, next year, the year after?
A closer look at the meaning of true freedom provides an answer valid for all periods of history, and any time or place we’ll find ourselves personally situated.
Once again we find ourselves celebrating the yom tov of Pesach – the same holiday we celebrated last year at this time, and next year we’ll be doing the same. Traditionally, Pesach commemorates the exodus of the Jewish People from Egypt. The exodus from Egypt was a pivotal point in our becoming a people; we gained our freedom – both physically, and very soon after, spiritually. We refer to the holiday as the time of our freedom, “Z’man Chairusenu,” and the Pesach seder – all its obligations and practices – thoroughly stresses the message of freedom and God’s redemption of the Jewish people throughout the ages.
That Pesach has its own set of special practices and mitzvot is not surprising; most of the holidays we observe do. But where Pesach stands unique is in the fact that we don’t only set out to remember what happened – utilizing the symbolism of the mitzvos, or specific wording of the liturgy and blessings of the holiday – rather, we retell the story in a way that is designed to make it as real as possible, and with the unique instruction that we should consider it “as if…” we too are the ones who actually participated in this magnitudinal event. The Rambam in his wording in the Mishnah Torah stresses this point. “In every generation one is obligated to see themself as if they left right now from slavery in Egypt.”
Is this requirement to personalize the exodus from slavery in Egypt intended as an educational, experiential tool? If so, it’s highly effective. Perhaps the requirement to see ourselves as having “just” been freed is based on the logic that we’re free today because our ancestors were freed then? It was a long time ago, but we live with their gained freedom.
But the specific language suggests that there’s more. Rav Dessler writes that “Zman Chairusenu” has literal meaning. The month of Nisan is a month of “geulah,” of redemption. The Gemara in Rosh Hashana (11A) says in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua, “B’Nisan nigalu, b’Nisan asidin l’gael, In Nisan we were redeemed, and in Nisan we will be redeemed in the future.” Nisan, we’re told, is a highly auspicious time for redemption. The Torah, which doesn’t name the months, but refers to them by numbers, considers Nisan the first of the months, or “Rosh Chodashim,” which the Medrash says is “Rosh l’geulah,” “the first, or foremost, for “geulah.”
But if gaining our freedom is in some way a constant from year to year, and this year we’ll gain it again, what exactly is the freedom that we gain each year anew? And what was the freedom that was achieved at the time the Jews left Egypt? Seemingly, it wasn’t a complete freedom – we became free of Egyptian mastery but almost immediately accepted upon ourselves the “yoke” of heaven and of God’s mitzvos. God says clearly that the Jewish people are his servants and no one else’s, “Avadai haim v’lo avadim l’avadim.” We never gained our total freedom at the Exodus, but by leaving the physical and spiritual incarceration of the land of Egypt, the Jewish people gained what we consider a truer freedom, one most valuable to humankind: the freedom to choose.
True freedom, we learn (as children and usually more so as adults) is not to be free from all influences that exist, rather to be free to actively choose which of those influences – and there are so many – will influence us. We need structure, direction, and boundaries (in order to live life to its full potential). This, the Torah provided, as soon as the constraints of Egypt and all that it represented were lifted and the Jewish people were free enough to choose for themselves. Seven weeks after the Exodus, the Jewish people used their newfound ability and chose to accept God’s word, “Na’ase v’nishma…” They didn’t become totally free from influences, they became totally free to choose those influences. They chose to be influenced by the Torah. They chose that as their destiny.
Freedom means different things to different people, depending so much on their place in life, and a myriad of variables. We tend to think of it as the ultimate in human existence – to be free! And if we ponder the question of whether it’s better to be free from the start or better to go from slavery to freedom, we might say that the answer is quite obvious. Not having the problem to start with is always best. Isn’t it? Would it not have been better if the Jewish people were never slaves?
But in his Sefer HaTodaah, Eliyahu Kitov writes that the person “who never tasted” the slavery in Egypt can’t taste the taste of geulah, of redemption. He states that if Bnei Yisrael hadn’t been enslaved in Egypt they would never have merited being free people.
The message sounds a lot like “we appreciate and value something more if we at one point didn’t have it (in this case our freedom), and then we acquire it.” But there’s a much more significant point here, one which provides explanation as to why we are obligated to see ourselves as having personally experienced the exodus from Egypt.
Being free is an ultimate, but there’s one step before that. It’s that transitionary time, the leaving of slavery, the becoming a free person that’s key, and necessary for true freedom. When one leaves slavery, any slavery, and gains their freedom, they gain both the ability to make choices for themselves and also a unique awareness of their capacity – the human capacity – to choose, at every single step along the way. Transitioning to freedom makes one keenly aware of this capacity. The individual who’s always had the ability to choose remains limited in exercising that freedom, lacking a heightened awareness of the power of choice present in all circumstances, stymied when facing tougher choices, unclear ones, abandoning the freedom of choice in situations where it seems as if choice is not possible, unbearable at best, even undesirable. The newly freed individual relishes in choice, readily admits that not all possibilities can be chosen, but knows that choice, in some shape or form, is always possible.
Every Pesach, each Nisan we gain our freedom, by regaining our awareness of our freedom. We place ourselves at the pivotal point of transitioning from slavery to freedom, reminding ourselves that the ability to choose indeed exists. In every generation we have to see ourselves as just released, newly capable of choice. Nisan reminds us of that power that we have; it empowers us to maneuver the world that we live in.
We all face a determined world – the family we are born into, the geographic place, the era, the gender, soci-economic situation… Free Will, we believe, exists. Not because we can choose the best of all worlds. We can’t, usually. But we can choose something in every situation. Bechirah, Rav Dessler writes, is about acknowledging truth. We are free to choose that which we believe to be true. He speaks of the Bechirah point, one that shifts, depending on a person’s situation, nature, propensity… As he explains it, easy decisions and extremely difficult ones don’t involve our Bechirah Chofshis; they’re either too easy or too hard. But those choices that are at the exact point where a person could go “either way,” this is where the human ability to choose (right over wrong, good over bad, truth over falsehood) forcefully comes to play.
We’re no freer from the challenges of choosing today than we were last year, then we’ll be next year, then people were 3000 years ago, at the time of the exodus from Egypt. And yet we’re as free to choose as people always have been, and as aware people always will be.
Judah S. Harris is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker and writer. He creates visual marketing materials for corporations and organizations, provides photography and video for a wide range of family and organizational events, and publishes a popular e-mail newsletter that circulates to thousands of readers. A graduate of Yeshiva University and alumnus of Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, Judah’s recently wrote “Studying Nechama Leibowitz,” which appeared in this paper. Sign up for Judah’s email newsletter to receive updates on new essays and visual projects HERE
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.