Slaves to Our Peers?

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a young business man with tied hands
14 Mar 2018

I am observing a class. The teacher is giving a familiar lesson before Pesach, namely, the four names of the holiday. Chag Ha’Aviv (holiday of the spring), Z’man Cheiruteinu (Holiday of Freedom), Chag HaMatzot (holiday of matza), Chag HaPesach (holiday of passing over/Paschal lamb). The kids unquestioningly write down the answers.

Come to think of it, as a student, I didn’t question this lesson either. But now that I’ve been making Pesach for nearly ten years, I have a glaring question about this lesson: in what possible way is this holiday the time of our freedom?

As we move our refrigerators and couches to search for chametz (leavened) items (and, in the case of a friend of mine, find an old slice of pizza), as we search our kids’ every drawer, backpack and coat pocket in search of old cookies and candy wrappers, as we pour boiling hot water on all of our countertops, use up, throw out or sell all of the pasta we’ve stocked up from Costco, search from store to store for expensive Kosher for Passover products, (most infamously, shmura matza, whose prices are a long way from poor man’s bread) and then cook and prepare for our Seder and the rest of the days of Pesach, substituting items in our favorite recipes with the hopes that our kids will eat them even though the ketchup is kind of gross, the word freedom just doesn’t jive.

Two years ago, I sent out an email to the staff at our school, most of whom are not Jewish, listing all the steps that go into making Passover to explain why some of our Judaic staff look a little harried this time of year and why many take off a day beforehand in order to prepare. Some of them just couldn’t believe it. Similar to the reaction of the cleaning help we recently hired who was unfamiliar with Pesach cleaning, “You want me to do what?!”

So, yes, the Jewish people experienced freedom when they left slavery behind in Egypt but today’s experience making Pesach does not mirror that same feeling of exultation. In fact, for many women (this one included), Pesach is a word best left unsaid until absolutely necessary – like two weeks before. It also explains the surge in popularity of Pesach retreats as a great way to observe the holiday, minus the stress from preparation (although the shopping, packing and expense involved with going away, comes along with its own stress).

So as we embark on this holiday preparation with all of the hard work involved, how do we connect to this concept of freedom?

To answer this question, I think back to one of my favorite Gemaras, which discusses why we don’t say Hallel on Purim. There are three answers offered but one that really speaks to me with its simple logic is this: by the end of the Purim story, we were still slaves to Achashveirosh. We were saved from annihilation but we were not free. Hence, how can we say Hallel?

This is unlike Pesach, when we were truly freed from slavery and can say Hallel with a full heart. But following the Pesach story, were we really free?

We read the story in the Haggadah of how Hashem saved us with an outstretched arm and brought plague after plague to Paroah and the Egyptians who enslaved us. Of course, the splitting of the Yam Suf (the Red Sea), mentioned in Dayeinu, but commemorated on the last days of Pesach is the grand finale to our physical salvation.

But as we know from reading the rest of Sefer Shmot and Bamidbar, the story doesn’t end there with its happy ending. Despite Hashem saving us from sure death over and over again, despite receiving the Torah in a most dramatic way, the Jews sin again and again in the midbar (desert), showing lack of faith and gratitude and delaying their entry to Eretz Yisrael, first by a few months, and then, ultimately, earning a death sentence in the midbar after the sin of the meraglim (spies). The Rambam suggests that ultimately the Jewish people proved that they could not leave their mentality of being slaves that Paroah had inflicted upon them. They were free but in their minds, they were very much slaves even though no one was treating them as such, always fearing for their next meal, what catastrophe might come, and unable to take a leap of faith with true trust in Hashem. They were free, but they could not break free from all they had endured to truly live freely. Many Holocaust survivors endured the same phenomenon after liberation. They were enslaved to a demon in their memory. For this reason, it had to be a new generation, born as free men, who could enter Eretz Yisrael.

Thinking over this concept of slavery, not a physical slavery, but a self-inflicted mental slavery, makes me wonder, are we slaves today, as well?

Who do we let define us, our decisions of how we spend our time and our money, what is most important to us, and most importantly, our self-worth?

Are we saying yes to chassadim (act of kindness) we don’t have time for, at the expense of time with our family, not because we think that chessed is important but because of what someone might say or think about us, if we say no? Do we really have to answer this email or text, even though we are ignoring our kids who want our attention, because someone might be upset if we don’t answer immediately? Is the recipient of this message really more important than our kids? (Sometimes the answer is yes).

Are we shopping at upscale stores we can’t afford for Pesach and spending money we don’t have on clothes, not to make ourselves feel beautiful (because one can surely buy fewer clothes at less expensive places) but because other women are and we feel the need to keep up?

Are we measuring our worth by how many likes we get on a Facebook post or how many shares? Does everyone’s reaction really define the worth of what we write?

Are we enslaved to the jealousy we feel at others who seem more skilled or charismatic, popular or successful to the point we let it take over how we treat them, allowing the Mishna in Avot, “Ha’Kinnah, HaKovod, v’HaTaava motziin et ha’adam min ha’olam” (jealousy, pursuit of honor and desire will take a person out of the world) to ring true?

Are we allowing someone who dislikes the way we handled a specific situation to bother us too much, wasting precious time thinking about it again and again when we’re fairly sure we’ve handled it correctly? Or if someone does something that isn’t nice to us, how much time and energy do we allow it to bother us, taking us away from other important things we can be doing?

Are we perhaps slaves to the perceptions and impressions of the world around us, despite the fact that peers do not hold whips and have no power over us, except for the power we allow them to have? And by allowing others to enslave us, are we no different from the Jews in the desert who were free men, but were enslaved by a mentality and therefore, unable to serve Hashem wholeheartedly?

These thoughts have been on my mind this year as I shop for my Pesach food, organize, clean, prepare menus and buy shoes for my kids. It has reminded me that slavery and freedom are deeper and far more encompassing concepts than we think about at first glance. And perhaps by working to free myself from how I let others to enslave me and my time, I can perhaps experience freedom this Pesach.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.