Sir Isaiah Berlin developed the idea that there are two kinds of freedom: ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom from’.
“Freedom from” is the absence of restraints and restraints. It is the absence of authority or responsibility. “Freedom to” is the idea that an individual has the ability to make autonomous decisions toward a goal or idea.
Using the Berlin dichotomy of “freedom from” and “freedom from”, how can we identify what freedom means in 2022? What do we collectively seek freedom from this year and what are we seeking the freedom to do or become?
Amid the recent wave of devastating terror that killed 14 Israelis, this Easter, many Jews want the freedom to lead normal lives without worrying about whether they or their families will return home safely in the evening. They seek the basic freedom to go to a restaurant or café, take a bus or walk down a busy street without fear of being attacked.
In the language of Easterthese circumstances would be considered a form of “metzar“, meaning “a narrow place”, “trouble” or “distress”. Passover is the story of the exodus of the Jewish people from Mitzrayim (Egypt) to the Promised Land, symbolizing the journey from slavery to redemption. The root of Mitzrayim is metzar“problems”.
“Min hametzar karati Y-ah“, Tehillim (Psalms) 118 States. “Of metzar, I cried out to God. It is in the place of distress, of confinement that we need God the most.
It is also the place where we are called to remain true to who we are, in the face of pressures to hide or forget our identity. The biblical character Joseph, who maintained his identity while in the depths of despair, was a model.
Even when Joseph was in prison, at the bottom of a pit, or sold by his brothers into slavery, he still kept his identity. Later, after Joseph died, Moses brought his bones (atzmot Yossef) out of Egypt (Shemot/Exodus 13:19). Why is this so important? Atzmot Yossef doesn’t just mean the bones of Joseph; it also means the “essence” of Joseph.
Moses thought it was essential to bring atzmot Yossef and the “essence” of Joseph on the journey out of Egypt. It was crucial for the process of liberation and freedom.
When the Palestinians vandalized Tomb of Joseph two days in a row last week, throwing stones and setting fire to the site, they were symbolically attacking our liberation, our freedom. They were attacking the bones of Joseph and what they represent, which was important enough to be brought with us during the Exodus.
At Passover, not only do we tell the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt, but we also consider our own freedom from our metzarim. The Haggadah says, “In every generation one must see (Lirot) as if they had personally left Egypt.
The medieval scholar Maimonides (Rambam) write it differently“Each generation must Pin up (Liharot) oneself as if they were only now leaving the slavery of Egypt. Rambam focuses us on the present as well as the past. He asks us to consider and act on our own liberation from our metzarim.
For two years, our metzar at the collective level was the Covid-19. We sought freedom from confinement in our homes, the freedom to travel, and the ability to embrace our close family and friends. This year, we identify with metzarim Ukrainians who want security and peace, and the freedom to choose their own destiny, free from violent Russian interference.
There are also personal metzarim from which we seek to free ourselves. It could be a job or a relationship, financial stress, an addiction or an unhealthy habit, a health problem, a personal loss or tragedy.
It could also be a harmful psychological pattern, such as setting impossible standards, being too hard on yourself or overconfident and arrogant, or comparing themselves to others.
At Passover, we imagine and act (Liharot) what it would mean to free ourselves and others from these circumstances, and what role we could play in making this happen.
Even if we are not personally experiencing a time of great distress, the Haggadah still asks us to identify with the metzarim of the collective Jewish people and of the world. “Hashta avdei, leshanah haba’a b’nei chorin! “Now slaves, next year free people!” we read every Passover, whether we feel like we are in “a tight place” or not.
A story illustrates why we do this. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel’s former Chief Rabbi, once visited an Israeli Air Force base for Passover. There were over 1,000 people there, and Rabbi Lau was leading the soldiers in a seder.
When the soldiers read the line from the Haggadah, “Hashta avdei, Leshanah haba’a b’nei chorin! Now slaves, next year free people,” some of them said, “I don’t understand, it doesn’t make sense. We are in Israel, we made it! Why do we say this?
“This text cannot speak to us,” a soldier told Rabbi Lau. “I am a Sabra. I have lived in Israel all my life. What does ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ mean?
Rabbi Lau, who had survived Buchenwald, replied: ‘I used to learn from the great rabbinical luminaries, Rabbi Eliahu Lopian and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and on Yom Kippur they would say: ‘Al het [for the sin of] This and that.'”
“Do you really think these wise Jews committed the worst sins? Rabbi Lau asked the soldiers. “On the holiest day of the year, could these great rabbis lie?”
“Of course not,” he continued, “but they said those words because they weren’t just thinking about themselves. They weren’t just thinking about ‘Ani, Ani, Ani.’ Like these great sages, we too must think of others. We must think of all the Jewish people and the whole world.
It’s the idea of the Haggadah and the idea of the Passover: it’s not just about me. The Haggadah is a text for the collective and the individual. It expresses the fundamental Jewish value of arevout — collective responsibility and sense of obligation and belonging to Am Yisrael. It teaches us the concept of people in the truest sense.
This sense of belonging and belonging to Am Yisrael is what many Diaspora Jews felt as terrorist attacks struck Israel from thousands of miles away.
This is what Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meant when he mentioned after the third victim of the Tel Aviv bombing, Barak Lufan, succumbed to his injuries: “The entire nation of Israel shares the heavy grief of the family.” We feel the pain and grief of others as if it were our own.
Part of the purpose of Leil Hasderthe night of the seder is to identify with pain and metzarim of others and to feel the sense of community responsibility that we all share. The Seder text can guide us to step out of ourselves and feel for others, identify with others, and think about others.
But ultimately, this feeling and identification with the community is only the first step. We identify with the “narrow places” of Am Yisrael and the world in order to be motivated to serve others, to help ourselves and others become free. If our transformation is complete, we recommit to being 4:14 Jews, to acting and standing up for others and what is right.
Perhaps the subtle and brilliant idea of the Baalei haHaggadah (authors of the Haggadah) is that by learning to take care of others, we will also transform the way we take care of ourselves.
When we identify with others and help liberate them, we also liberate ourselves. And, in the words of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l, when we break free, we have freedom “the first to [stand] proud and tall as Jews, and secondly to work for freedom and justice for all.