Pesach: Freedom

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14 Apr 2008

Two basic words appear in our literature to connote freedom. One appears in the Torah and other receives no mention in Tanach proper. It would follow that Chazal describe the essence of Pesach with the Biblical word. In point of fact, nothing is farther than the truth. The Rabbis actually coined a phrase that has become the sine qua non of Pesach, even as they overlooked a word for freedom that is manifest in the Torah. The two words? – the Biblical chofshi and the Rabbinic cheirut. The latter is all over the Haggadah (meiavdus l’cheirus, bnei chorin) and is the liturgical definition (z’man cheiruseinu) of Pesach. The former is MIA. Why?

What is chofshi? In the context of describing the bondage of the eved ivri, the Torah relates: “Six years he shall work and on the seventh year he shall depart lachofshi(1) – for freedom. It appears that chofshi is a definition of absence – one whose desired state is defined by what he is not (a slave) rather than by what he will be. Modern day Hebrew uses the word chofesh as vacation – a place/space of escape from routine and normal life. Maybe even a day without a cellphone. Thus chofshi, is a futureless freedom – one that is solely defined by departure from the past rather than a depiction of a future vision.

And what of the Rabbinic word cheirus?

We shall return, but let us first note that the maggid (storytelling) section of the seder has much meta-narrative. That is, much of the maggid is devoted to how to tell the story as much as the story itself: Consider the following sampling of meta-narrative comments strewn throughout the Haggadah.

  1. Who says the story – Even if you are wise, (v’aphilu kulana chachamim)
  2. How much – the more the better (v’chol hamarbeh…)
  3. We’ll prove points a & b (5 Rabbis in Bnei Brak)
  4. The scope of obligation to remember the exodus applies all year (Rabbi Eliezer/Sages)
  5. How must one relate to each particular child (baruch Hamakom/four children)
  6. When to tell the story (yachol meirosh chodesh)

By the time we are ready to tell the story, we may be quite tired! Why not create a separate pre-Pesach how-to manual and use the Seder night for dedicated storytelling? The answers says the Brisker Rav, is that relating the halachos of Seder night is part of mitzvah of sippur. Indeed the Tosefta(2) explicitly records this notion; by observation, we may also note that halacha comprises the basic response to our chacham (wise son). However, this only begs the question – what is the connection between telling the story of the exodus and relating the laws?

We return to cheirus. In a most poignant manner, Chazal forged an amazing etymological leap of faith. There is one word in the Torah that possesses the very same letters as cheirus, separated by just one vowel. That word is charus. In context, it means engraved or etched – as in the Divine writing being hewn upon the tablets(3). It is hardly possible to imagine a word that is more the antithesis of classical freedom. Being hewn and etched means that one is bound and constricted.

And yet Chazal string it all together for us in a classic one liner. Al tikri charus ela cherus – ein lecha ben chorin ela mi sh’eoseik b’ talmud Torah(4). There is no cheirus save for the one that is actively bound to Torah. Bound and free?

Yes. Does anybody still doubt that even in the freest society known to man, we can still be in bondage – enticed and intimidated into inappropriate actions? Ultimately, the formula for transcending our personal and societal shackles requires being bound to Hashem and his Torah. Is it not ironic that on the very night of our liberation, almost every step of our seder is choreographed? That’s precisely the point.

Shalach es ami (“Let My People Go”) says God (to Paroh), but that’s not enough. You dare not forget the end of the verse: veya’avduni(5) – so that they shall serve Me! Pesach in a nutshell is freedom – to serve(6). Thus, it is perfectly appropriate that halacha be discussed as part of the Exodus story. God took us out in order to serve him. We need to know what that means!

In a world of confused paradigms, Pesach as unbridled freedom is de rigueur. For the Jew seeking a meaningful relationship with God, it is the sublime freedom of transcendence that comes from incredible work and discipline that we cherish. May this Pesach bring us a step closer to that goal.

A Freileichen and Kasher Pesach, Asher Brander

1. Shemos, 21:2
2. Tosefta, Pesachim 10:11
3. Shemos, 32:16
4. Avos, 6:2
5. Shemos, 7:16, 26;9:1, etc.
6. Thus, we teach the she’eino yodeia lishol, the child who simply doesn’ t know that the essence of the night is ba’avur zeh – it is for this reason that God liberated us. This, say Rashi and Ibn Ezra (but really Chazal) – means in order to fulfill his mitzvos

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

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