If someone were to ask people to describe the meaning of the Yom Tov of Pesach in one word, there’s a very good chance everyone would say the same thing.
There are a few reasons they would say this. First of all, we refer to these days as “zman cheiruseinu.” Furthermore, the very Chag has as its central idea that the Jews were freed from the slavery they endured in Mitzrayim.
But the definition of “freedom” as it is commonly understood today is not the same one as the “cheirus” of Pesach. Freedom means not being hindered or restrained in any way from acting as one wants. It’s the kind of definition that is most closely typified by the ideology of the libertarian movement and the extremist left. Both of these political movements leave no room for the idea that there should be some sort of limitation on what one ought to do besides want.
That idea of freedom is most popular today, and in many ways that perception is itself responsible for many of the challenges that we face as frum Jews in a world we feel less and less comfortable in. The attitude has made its way into our communities as well, as a not insignificant minority will always respond to the direction of our leaders with some variation of “it’s a free country;, I can do what I want.”
But cheirus doesn’t exactly translate as freedom, and we don’t ascribe to a belief system that posits that one could do whatever one wants. As the Lakewood Mashgiach, Harav Mattisyahu Salomon, shlita (may he have a refuah sheleimah), has said many times, bechirah is not the ability to do what we want. Animals, which don’t have bechirah, are confined to doing whatever they want. What sets man apart from beasts is our ability to do what we don’t want to, as well as not do what we want to do.
So what is cheirus, and what is Pesach all about?
The Sefer HaChinuch, when discussing the mitzvah of Sefiras HaOmer (mitzvah 306), touches upon the point of why we begin on Pesach counting the days until Shavuos. It is, he explains, because the entire purpose of Yetzias Mitzrayim is the eventual Kabbalas HaTorah, and the two are inextricably bound.
The Sefer Chareidim (1:17) is even more explicit about this point. He explains (quoting a Zohar in part) that Yetzias Mitzrayim was the replacement of our servitude to Pharaoh with the “avdus” of the 613 mitzvos. It is with this in mind that the baalei mussar explain that the focal point of Pesach isn’t so much that we were let out of Mitzrayim as that our being redeemed was what made us avdei Hashem.
Harav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, (Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, maamar 42) brings multiple examples where the Torah conflates Yetzias Mitzrayim with Klal Yisrael’s becoming servants of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Emunah, he explains, plays a central role in our being avdei Hashem, as it is an expression of our subjugation to the One Above, our Master. Yetzias Mitzrayim thus occupies such an important role in emunah, because it is how we got to be avdei Hashem.
Rashi himself says as much when he explains the first of the Aseres Hadibros. Quoting a Mechilta, Rashi says, “K’dai hi hahotzaah shetihiyu meshubadim li — it is worth the exodus (from Mitzrayim) so that you should be subjugated to Me.”
So why then is it called “cheirus”?
Cheirus, more accurately translated, would be liberation, not freedom. We were liberated from Mitzrayim, but we didn’t become “free.”
In B’Maaglei Hashanah (Volume 3, pg 45–47), Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, explains that man, on his own, can never truly be free. The world is full of circumstances that one cannot control, and no matter how “free” he is, man is slave to them. Therefore, he explains, the only true cheirus is when one totally subjugates oneself to Hashem; He is, after all, the only One who is truly above it all.
Pharaoh himself believed that he was free. After all, he was the most powerful monarch in the world. Who could be more free than that? But, Rav Hutner explains (ibid.), Hakadosh Baruch Hu took away his bechirah from him, thus reducing his “freedom” to nothing. It is this very idea which helps us understand what it means to be truly free. It is that we can be masters of our free will.
Subjugating ourselves and our wants and needs to total subservience to the One Above is the only true expression of bechirah. Otherwise, we are just slaves to our nature. On Pesach we can recognize our unique ability to rise above all that, and be servants to Hashem.
And that, and only that, is true cheirus.