Slavery is an extreme. Imagine that you are a slave. You have no control over your time. You are bruised from back-breaking labor and the whip of the taskmaster. Even more painful, you have no say over your children, who can be sold like pieces of property. The slavery of our people’s past is way in the past and yet, the memory of our origins lingers as a call to action. The Bible repeatedly commands us to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. We are admonished, “Remember you were slaves in Egypt.”
At our Seders, we participate in a play. Before us are foods that remind us of shared pain. We eat bitter herbs until our eyes water; crunch the dry, stomach-filling matzah as slave food; and savor haroset, a mixed mash of fruit and nuts suggestive of the mortar used by the builders of the pyramids. Although we recline and enjoy a tasty meal on our finest dishes, we are invited to ask are we truly free?
For our sages, Pesech only begins a journey toward freedom. Shackles are removed. Choice is offered. And yet, a count begins for 49 days. Erich Fromm, the great psychologist made a distinction between the “freedom from” Egypt and the “freedom to” of Mount Sinai, the destination of that count. He emphasized that we are defined by our commitments. At Mount Sinai in our collective memory we chose as a people to live in relationship with G-d, committing ourselves to live righteously and utilizing rituals to form bonds with each other and with the Divine. I am concerned about a steady dilution of that memory of Sinai. I am aware that American Jews are fortunate to have the luxury of so many choices and that we need study and reinforcing actions to link our lives both with the humbling origins of our collective past and in celebration of a legacy of commitment.
I look to share a Seder in which we ask, “Why is this night different than all other nights?” I hope that all will arise at the end of the story-telling and fine dining feeling happy. Our sages say that a Seder should begin in groaning as we recount our past slavery and lead to rejoicing over our freedom. And yet, as we leave the Seder, what will linger? In what sense have we taken our people’s past as our own? In what ways are we renewing a journey toward a life of caring for those who are in need financially and emotionally? And in what ways- both ritually and in righteous deed- do we separate from the rhythms of the world around us to proclaim: “I am a Jew, pursuing righteousness and accepting duties of communal belonging?
As a rabbi, I pause. It is too easy to preach. How am I living that challenge? You see, I too need to examine and continually renew attentive empathy and self-discipline. I am reminded of the words of Elie Wiesel, who exemplified both Jewish commitment and universal conscience: “Modest acts of kindness are more significant than we recognize. It does not have to be newsworthy. You just need to look for the outstretched hand. You just need to touch one person every day with compassion.” Judaism challenges us. The journey from Egypt to Sinai goes on. Each of us participates in that collective journey through our communal commitments and deeds of compassion, choices that define us and our true freedom.