This week we begin the quintessentially Jewish holiday of Passover. That is because it is a holiday filled with food, friendship and family. Furthermore, the Passover Seder and the recounting of the story of the Exodus from Egypt reminds us of our humble beginnings, the epic story of our liberation and our ensuing journey towards the Promised Land. The transition of the Israelites from bondage to freedom was not an easy one. They needed to overcome their slave mentality and to come to terms with the fact that they were now the masters of their own fate. When one is a slave, there are no choices in life. You don’t choose when you awaken, when you sleep or what you eat. All of those choices are made for you. With freedom comes both responsibility and accountability, and not everyone is up to the task.
Even before the parting of the Red Sea, our ancestors were unsure as to what to do with their newfound freedom. There were those who regretted having left Egypt and yearned to return to their miserable state of servitude because it provided them with a “slave’s sense” of security. Despite the fact that they were given the miraculous gift of manna each morning (except for Shabbat), they pined for the fish and meat that they had eaten in captivity, even though, according to legend, the manna would taste like anything that you wished. It has been said many times that it took longer to get Egypt out of the Jews than it took to get the Jews out of Egypt.
Exactly what does freedom mean to us? For some, it may mean a weekend getaway, spending time with loved ones or simply relaxing and reading a book by the pool.
As someone who recently retired from the pulpit rabbinate after 37 years, I have been giving this question a great deal thought. What does freedom mean to me? And how can I best use my skills to find personal meaning while helping others along the way? It is far too easy to become a couch potato and binge-watch television shows on Netflix or Hulu, and I admit that I have done that on too many occasions.
Freedom means far more than not having a set schedule or fixed responsibilities. Ideally, we should not only be free from a mandatory routine. We should, rather, embrace activities that are meaningful to us as well as to others.
As a retired rabbi, I have tried, albeit imperfectly, to explore my freedom in different ways. For example, I have taught conversion classes (both privately and in classes). I have officiated at several life-cycle events like weddings, funerals and unveilings. I have been engaged to conduct High Holy Day services and have met some wonderful people along the way. As you read this article, I will be serving as the cruise rabbi on the Queen Mary 2 for Passover, traveling from Southampton, U.K. to New York and back. And my greatest joy is that my wife, Debbi, and I moved to Ahwatukee to live close to our daughter, her husband and her children so that we could be present in their lives and help out as much as we can. I dare say that being on call as Bubbe and Zeide is the most satisfying job that we could ever imagine!
As we begin our observance of the Feast of Freedom, I am reminded of the teaching of the French philosopher Albert Camus, who wisely said: “Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.”
I wish you all a Chag Kasher V’Sameach, a happy and kosher Passover. And may each of us use this festival as a way to better ourselves. JN
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky, retired pulpit rabbi and Navy Chaplain, is former president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.