From Slavery to Freedom – and Back Again?

A woman whose life is governed by Torah and mitzvos recently confessed to my wife that she conforms to standards of tznius for one reason only: she wants approval from others, and she is afraid to deviate from the norms of the people whose opinion she cares about.

With zman cheiruseinu approaching, the Yom Tov which is the blueprint for freedom, I pose this question: Is this woman free?

This question is not only about her. It raises important issues about what it is we are to be working on as we approach and experience Pesach. While we are meticulously and obsessively concerned with chametz and immerse ourselves in the latest Haggadah and new insights into the meaning of the Seder, what avodah, what internal spiritual undertaking, does Hakadosh Baruch Hu expect from us? Is the goal, when it is over, to be yotzei our mitzvos and make sure our food is kosher, or is a change in our worldview expected of us?

A quick survey of the nature of cheirus reveals that this thing we call freedom is available at times we might not expect it, and, once achieved, it is not easily enduring.

The story line we are most familiar with is a linear one: we were slaves to Pharaoh in Mitzrayim, and then Hashem took us out, and we were free. Now it is our job to relive that linear progression, and, although “this year we are slaves, next year we will be free.” In this version, one moves from slavery to freedom, and the job is done. And, in this rendition, freedom is bestowed upon us by Hashem, who performs miracles in order to give it to us.

But upon closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that this is not the case. We can be in Mitzrayim and experience cheirus, and be delivered miraculously from Mitzrayim and still need a yeshuah.

Take Shabbos Hagadol. It reminds us that, even before Bnei Yisrael were delivered by makas bechoros from Mitzrayim, they were instructed to undertake a major act of defiance of their masters, by taking their false god and dedicating it as a sacrifice to Hashem. They could only have done this if they lived in a state of mind which put very little concern on the opinion and reaction of their masters, and very much concern on fulfilling Hashem’s command. Isn’t that cheirus before Yetzias Mitzrayim?

By the preparation Hashem ordered before the korban, He telegraphed that there was a danger inherent in anticipating the coming physical Geulah. Bnei Yisrael might think that freedom was a matter of circumstances, or that freedom was something someone else can provide. They would become passive observers of miracles, dependent on outside forces to give them freedom, and forfeit responsibility to create cheirus themselves. So Hashem says, in so many words, that before you see My miraculous intervention, undertake acts of freedom. Relate to forces that would enslave you as irrelevant; choose, instead of your Egyptian masters, to serve Me.

Look further. A week after experiencing the coup de grace of makkos, after being expelled with riches from Mitzrayim, they find Mitzrayim overtaking them. A people, having just experienced a year’s worth of makkos culminating with makkas bechoros, expelled by their former masters with riches in tow, panic, blame, complain, despair and is sure they are doomed. Does that sound like free people?

What emerges from all this is a truism that puts considerable responsibility on one who seeks cheirus: Cheirus comes before Hashem gives it, and can evaporate even after you’ve gained it. Once you are free, you have no guarantee you will remain so, and many good reasons to be on guard, lest it slip away while you are not looking. There will always be a Mitzrayim lurking behind you.

Actually, the message is that you never “have” cheirus. You can only create it, moment by moment. It is an ongoing awareness and determination to counter the Mitzrayim that is always traveling behind us with a refusal to accept it as the governing influence in our lives.

What does that Mitzrayim look like? Different things to different people, but it is always there. For some it is the greedy thief of habit, robbing one of the freshness and immediacy of standing in Hashem’s Presence. For others, it is the slavery of being busy, functioning under the illusion that, if I can only finish my to-do list, do one more deal, return one more phone call, cram one more thing into my schedule, I will finally be free and fulfilled. Yet others have a Mitzrayim that demands they pay attention to anything other than the people they love and who love them, even other than Hashem. Its modern whip is the smartphone, demanding allegiance at all times to the beckoning call of text, email, WhatsApp, or Twitter.

But the greatest tyranny of all is the tyranny of living for approval of others. The focus on conforming to the expectations of others annihilates any sense of an inner self, to the point that a person cannot even be aware that he has thoughts, feelings, strengths, attributes or choices of his own, or that one’s thoughts or feelings matter if they are not broadcast to others. The result is a person with no way to evaluate his/her own standing or value without being “liked” by others.

Baruch Hashem, our modest lady leads a life within the bounds of halachah. But it cannot be said that she is free. While her secular counterpart dresses under the tyranny of the fashion industry, she dresses under the self-made tyranny of others’ opinion. What is missing for her is what may be missing for many of us: In front of whom are we performing? It is not that she doesn’t want to serve Hashem. It is that, in accepting the master of public opinion, she has replaced the Master of the Universe with another master that robs her of self, and provides nothing.

Pesach is a one-week immersion in practicing awareness of what we always know, but have allowed to fade into the background: Hashem runs the entire world, everything in it, and everything that happens. That is why the Seder ends with “Echad Mi Yodei’ah,” because we don’t usually, fully, know, the One. On Seder night, we live through the nissim of Yetzias Mitzrayim, and remember that He is watching, guiding, and caring for us. Now. When that becomes clear, we have no other master.


 

Rabbi Ilan Feldman is the Rabbi of Beth Jacob in Atlanta.