Each year, nine out of ten Jews in Israel sit around a Seder table and recount the Exodus from Egypt. An event that occurred 3,500 years ago continues to ignite our imagination. This year, thousands more will join our tables having just arrived in Israel from Ukraine. People uprooted from their homes will be sitting together with those firmly rooted in their own. Refugees and citizens of a sovereign state find common ground within a ritual centered around the concept of “freedom.”
At the core of the story is the freedom won by a group of slaves who were liberated from arduous bondage and became a people with a unique identity who left a profound mark on world history. You don’t have to be religious or traditional to appreciate the story as a founding ethos: Herzl and Ben-Gurion, the great secular leaders of political Zionism, devoted much thought to the Exodus from Egypt, and used it to advance their national vision.
Many non-Jews have also deeply related to the Book of Exodus narrative and have shaped their consciousness in its light. For example, the Blacks who were brought to America as slaves endured the tremendous hardships they faced by seeing themselves as the successors of the Exodus from Egypt. It is a great and captivating drama to which each generation connects in its own way. That is how it was then, and so it is today with the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine, as the Ukrainian people fight for their freedom.
Freedom has two aspects: a physical aspect of liberation from the yoke of the other; and a spiritual aspect of liberation, which allows us to listen to our inner voice and to make our independent personal and national choices, free from the yoke of external agendas, ideology, or any other outside influence. The Exodus from Egypt is the realization of the Jewish people’s physical freedom; the shaping of the uniquely Jewish value system is the realization of our spiritual freedom. It is impossible to be free without the first, physical aspect, but there is no point to being free in the absence of the second aspect, the freedom of the spirit.
Today’s Israel has achieved physical freedom in a big way: Israel is a regional superpower whose enemies do not endanger its existence. We have become a significant political force in the global geopolitical arena. We enjoy a strong and stable economy driven by powerful growth engines, in particular an exciting high-tech industry. Creativity, vitality, and learning are the powerful locomotive that leads Israel from success to success. Our backs – once stooped under the heavy load of thousands of years of exile – now stand straight. We have conquered the mountain.
But what is the purpose of the thriving Zionist enterprise? What is the vision we want to fulfill with the physical freedom we’ve acquired through blood, sweat, and tears? The truly great task is the realization of the freedom of the spirit; taking advantage of the opportunity given to us to fulfill ourselves as a nation striving to correct our 21st century reality. The Festival of Freedom should be a signpost in time when we push ourselves toward a personal and national accountability regarding the question of purpose.
Cherut (freedom) and achrayut (responsibility) are two Hebrew words that sound alike. Ostensibly, they are opposites: a free person is entitled to act as s/he sees fit, while a responsible person must impose restrictions on him- or herself. But in reality, these are complementary concepts: the purpose of the struggle for freedom, in the physical sense, is to enable those freed from bondage to take responsibility for their lives, and thus acquire spiritual freedom for themselves. Passover will take on new scope and meaning if we realize that the holiday of freedom is also the holiday of responsibility.
Our physical freedom, as Israelis, charges us with responsibility in relation to refugees from the war in Europe. This is what the Torah teaches us, which links responsibility for others with the Exodus from Egypt: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).