Pesach: the Four Freedoms


Just before Pesach 2022, Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik gave a lesson about the four freedoms connected with the holiday.  this article presents the teaching I gleaned and inspired by him.

One can easily notice that the dominant number that repeats itself several times during the Seder, the festive celebration that opens the Holiday of Passover, is Four:

We all can list the four cups of wine, the four questions and the four sons.  Then there are the four signs of distress: “Adonai heard our Plea, and saw our Affliction, our Misery and our Oppression).  And the four attributes with which HaShem took us out from Egypt: “With mighty hand and outstretched arm; with awesome power; with signs; and with wonders.

There are also the four actions of redemption (Exodus 6:6-7): “I am Adonai, I will Remove you from the oppression and suffering of the Egyptians and Save you from their bondage. I will Deliver you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  And I will Take you to be My people”.

The focus of this teaching is on another set of four, well hidden in the Haggadah.  These are four types of freedom, namely:  Freedom Through Children, the Freedom of Beginning, the Freedom in Time and the Freedom within Law.  Let us dive into each and every one of these freedoms.

The First Freedom is Freedom through our children.

Let’s start with an appetizer for thought: Families in Israel have an average of 3.1 children, compared with 1.7 in other developed countries.  A survey asked residents in many developed countries (including Israel) what was reason for the size of their families.  Majority of respondents in the developed countries explained the reason for low family size: “because we seek personal fulfillment”.  The majority of respondents in Israel explained the larger size of their families with the argument: “because we seek personal fulfillment”.

The whole Seder is focused on our children.  They ask questions – and we answer them right away as they ask them, in a language they understand.  We encourage them to ask as we reenact the story, using rituals, songs, food and blessings.  Even the first sentence of the story – “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” – raises the children’s curiosity and interest, as it starts with the drama of slavery and miraculous liberation.  The Afikomen, that piece of Matza that we hide for the children to find and redeem it for a gift to them, is yet another means to keep the children engaged.

In his address to the People just before leaving Egypt, Moshe is focusing on the children, on the future, not on the present and immediate happenings that will take place the following day: “V’Higad’tah L’vinkha” – You shall tell, explain, to your child on that day… (Exodus 13:8).  This is the very same verb that the Haggadah – the story of the exodus – is coming from.

Providing context of history and values to the children is what’s necessary to create and maintain a free and just society.  Moshe realizes that it is easier to be free from slavery than it is to build and maintain a free society that will sustain itself into the far-out unknown future.  Connecting the values gained through past experience and the nation’s history to the future is the prerequisite to the everlasting sustenance of a free society.

The Second Freedom is the freedom as a beginning.

Freedom is not a goal or a destination, but rather a beginning, a milestone, that denotes the start of the journey.  Being free from the physical bondage, slavery, is the absolute necessity to be able to become a free person.  Only free persons can create a free society.  And we all need to work relentlessly and endlessly to keep the society as such.  We do that by reminding ourselves again and again that beginning, that move to freedom – Y’tzi’at Mitzrayim – as a motivation to continue working on being free.  Being free now, is only a beginning to a future of continued freedom.

Another name for Passover is Ḥag HaMtzot – the festival of unleavened bread.  In fact, in Torah this is the name of the whole week we celebrate, while the Pesaḥ, Passover, is the name of the first night only!  Rabbi Itzḥak Luria, (Ha’Ari HaKadosh, 1534-1572, Tzfat) said:

“‘This is the bread of affliction…’ – the Matzah is more than just an imitation of the food that our ancestors ate in Egypt.  It is the actual bread of affliction for us today!!  Just as the Matzah was the bread of affliction for our ancestors that brought about their redemption and release from the impurity imposed by slavery, so too, Matzah has a transformative power for us.  Matzah is ‘the food of healing;’ by eating it we find redemption and a connection to the divine.”

The Third Freedom is freedom in time.

While in captivity, slavery, one has no control whatsoever over one’s life.  Since one does not have the freedom to make a choice one’s free will is taken away.  Everything is dictated: what you do, how you do, when you do.  You turn to be like a machine, an asset.  You have no control over time; time controls you.

Together with the freedom that stems out from free will and making choices comes the responsibility: among the many facets of which is how we utilize time.  Opportunities present themselves at our doorstep: will we act upon those opportunities and do something or let them slide away?

In our reenacting and retelling the ancient Exodus from Egypt story every year, we sanctify a fleeting moment in our history.  We are turning it into something the represents eternity.  We commit ourselves to a great past that is connected to a future yet to be born.

THE ban of Ḥametz – all types and kinds of leavened products – is the basic commandment that one observes during Passover.  When it comes to leavened bread and baked goods, Ḥametz happens when you do nothing!  As long as you knead the dough, it doesn’t rise and turn into Ḥametz.  It rises only when you let it rest, when you do nothing.  In that sense, Ḥametz equals to procrastination.  It is a waste of time.

As many of you may have experienced when baking Matzot, the characteristics that is dominant with that process is alacrity.  You cannot be idle.  Do. Be decisive.  Appreciate time, live time and command it.  It also means that one needs to love the fact that time is moving, constantly going away.  A moment gone never comes again.  With the Matza and the ban of leavened bread we remind ourselves that being free in time is when we shape time, connect past with posterity through progress.  If we let time control us, we are not free.

The Forth Freedom is the Freedom Through Law.

The title sounds counterintuitive, almost oxymoron.   The Seder we perform – means the Order of Things.  Everything must be in a certain order, according to a prescribed process.  It means following sets of regulations and laws.  What is free in that?

The Second Son asks: What is all this hard work you do – Ma Ha-AVODAH Hazot Lakhem? Indeed, it is hard work to prepare for Pesaḥ: cleaning, changing dishes, cooking with stricter restrictions, and so on.  Yet, let us not forget – the meaning of AVODAH in Hebrew, in addition to work, labor, it also means the Service of God!  Becoming free we can choose to eat Matzah and follow the order of the Seder and not the other way around!

Playing a musical instrument is a good example.  First, one must learn the rules and functions related to the instrument that one wants to play.  It takes repetition, exercise, tedious work, until one can really play.  And then comes the freedom.  The freedom to express deep emotions through music, the freedom to choose what music to play and how to play it.  And the freedom to create new music.

Law is intertwined with freedom; it advocates us how to utilize our freedom.  And how to share freedom with others.  Without it, there is only chaos, in which no one is really free.

Religious institutes, like our sinagogues, provide us all with a balanced mixture of responsibility, sympathy, lawfulness (not limited to civil laws only), sanctity of time, righteousness and compassion.  It enables us to integrate our wants with our duties.  It connects history with the future, it makes sure that the next generations are nurtured by our heritage.

This is the real freedom.

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