The Festival of Freedom

April 22, 2011 - 5:00 am

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”—Leviticus 19:33-34

In retelling the story of the Exodus, perhaps the hardest thing for many of us to connect with is the concept of being an enslaved people. Living in the United States, or even Israel for that matter, we enjoy the freedom to worship, to pursue a career or education, to speak our mind, and freedom to elect our government. We are, by the world’s standards, a free people.

Yet, Passover reminds us that true freedom also involves the inner, spiritual realm. It is true that in a time of freedom we can feel enslaved. And it is equally true that while enslaved or under oppression, we can feel free. Indeed, for the Jew, nothing must stand in the way of fulfilling the mitzvah (spiritual duty) to feel free on this holiday.

I have often marveled at how it was humanly possible for Jews living in concentration camps and the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust to fulfill this sense of “feeling free” on Passover. And yet, the amazing testimony to the power of God’s spirit moving within humankind is that many Jews did find the spiritual strength and courage to feel free despite their wretched conditions.

Passover bids us to remember the good and the bad, our joys and our tribulations, our past sufferings and our hopes for the world’s future redemption. In recalling our own exodus from slavery and bondage, we are to actively seek freedom for all those to whom it is presently denied. This is the meaning of the command to love the stranger and the foreigner in our midst, since we were once strangers in Egypt. And while this can mean our spiritual freedom, we also regard the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed as equally enslaved and in need of redemption.

The very essence of Passover and our longing for freedom—both physical and spiritual—is expressed beautifully in the closing reading of the Seder liturgy: “Our Passover service is completed. We have reverently repeated its ordered traditions. With songs of praise we have called upon the name of God. May he who broke Pharaoh’s yoke forever shatter all fetters of oppression, and hasten the day when war will be no more. Soon may he bring redemption to all mankind — freed from violence and from wrong, and united in an eternal covenant of brotherhood.”

I think that is a hope and a prayer that we both can share, Christians and Jews alike.


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