Freedom and the meaning of Pesach
Rabbi Yerahmiel Barylka
Passover’s meaning is all too easily defined: freedom. But unless we truly internalize that concept, the holiday will come and go without it making a real impact upon our lives. In this opus, Rabbi Barylka takes a stab at the significance of freedom within the context of daily living. Resonance thus is granted to history through personal experience.
The Torah, concise and parsimonious in its use of words, mentions the term “Exodus” no less than 30 times! Emotion is inherent in each occasion. Otherwise, the letters of the word would be emptied of meaning through overuse. The human element must be added for the phrase to resound. When we read of the “frontlets” which you shall bind upon your forehead and arm, the phylacteries or “tefillin” in Hebrew, and, in Exodus 12:50, we are reminded of the day which marked our liberation from Egypt, then we truly give thanks to the Almighty in a most personal sense.
Without the real stuff of experience, all this repetition would be utterly meaningless. Liberty is not an aim in and of itself. It is, rather, the means whereby we obtain our goals. This is why we must not forget the story of our slavery in Egypt. It is the relevance of our Declaration of Independence.
For all those immersed in the deciphering of linguistic mysteries, Pesach means, in Hebrew: pe: the mouth, and sach: converse-the mouth that speaks. This holiday restores to us what we lost in Egypt: the right to self-expression, to define our own destiny, to become protagonists in the ebb and flow of knowledge. It gives us back our right to be free, which had been lost behind the bars of the iron, (or gilded), cage. It takes us to Sinai, where we receive the Law, where we speak and complain and raise our voices to the Almighty to thank God and express ourselves.
Word and space become one. Pesach incarnates the difference between those who would sheepishly submit to a pre-ordained fate and those who would forge their own destiny in life’s crucial real-time moments. Many individuals submit to an externally imposed “dictatorship of the mind”: they allow others to mutilate their free will, and truncate their ability to comply with Divine Grace. For these people, reading from the Haggadah can be a cathartic experience. It can enable them to become masters of their own destiny. They will truly begin to exercise the right to self-expression.
Judaism desires each being to be a truly sovereign presence. Slavery is the lot of the overly passive. Judaism, in contrast, extols those who would freely unite with their Creator.
The Exodus returns to us our right to determine how we allot our own time. We are loosed from the conceptual stop-watch. Human beings regain, as Kohelet tells us, their time to love and to hate, their time to join together and to tear asunder, their time to lose and to recover what was lost, their times of war and of peace, their times to cry and to rejoice. The prerogative of the free individual is the determination of his/her own stages of action and waiting.
Jews understood quite well the meaning of time. Festivals fell on the same days every year. Rabbinical courts took note of the fluctuations of the seasons. Witnesses gave convincing testimonies to the Authorities regarding the waxing and waning of the moon.
In Hebrew, the verb obviates the phases of time’s divisions. It focuses on the completeness of the action itself. Hebrew verbs penetrate into the inner being of time. They are unconcerned with time’s external facets. Time and Liberty are indescribable dimensions. They must be experienced rather than articulated.
Exodus 12:2 marks the Spring month of Nisan. That month commences just before the dreaded Tenth Plague. It is the first month of the Jewish year. The Israelites begin to control the passage of their days. No more living on borrowed time, or submitting to Pharoah’s dictates. Our calendar will be our own invention. Eternity, the sum total of all our instants, will once again be revealed to our eyes. Rabbi Ovadiah of Solferino sees in this idea the basic essence of Judaism. In his midrashic commentary, Ovadiah recounts that when the angels sought to discover the date of the Day of Final Reckoning, God quizzically responded: “Let us ask the earthly tribunal.”
The greatest gift bestowed upon us by the Exodus is our time of freedom. Even the Talmud urges us to take into account that the setting of our High Holy Days is the result of this freedom.
Because the month of Nisan marks the outset of our right to compose our own schedules-as we would put it in high-tech management slang-it is dubbed the first month of the Jewish calendar. Only slaves do not control their own time. They are not masters of their own fate.
Remember the typical complaint of the workaholic: ” I have no time for myself anymore!” Free individuals must strive to maintain their leisure time, in order to cultivate interests and hobbies: those special things that make us what we are. When we spend to much time in our own private Egypt, we are shackled by chains of our own making. And self-imposed bonds are as irksome as those of Pharoah, if not more so.
Matzah, the unleavened bread which we eat on Pesach, must be brought forth in a question of minutes. That victual jealously guards its time: a question of priorities, one would say. Pesach points us towards time management with a purpose: full self-realization. The method just cannot go wrong.
The word “hametz”, which indicates all yeast-leavened products from which we abstain on Pesach, has a coterie of definitions: over-fermentation, bitterness, acidification to the point of being inedible, losing, wasting, disdaining. Many have the same low regard for their own personal freedom: a return to slavery is always, at the end of the day, much easier than plowing ahead.
Pesach obligates us to undertake our own life-long Time Management Course. We must free ourselves from our own internal slave drivers. The latter gnaw away at our own time: the time to find ourselves and to achieve what we truly long for. Hence, imaginary space becomes the concrete framework upon which we weave the fabric of our lives. It allows us to reassume our own identity, partaking of spiritual time and the physical continuum. Pesach restores to us that most difficult treasure: free will.
Rabbi Yerahmiel Barylka