On Monday night, Jews around the world will begin an 8-day celebration of freedom. They will sit around tables, marking the tradition known as the Seder, retell and in fact relive the story of the Exodus from Egypt. They will read the Haggadah (a small book that outlines the story of Passover and its rituals), drink four cups of wine, eat the flat, cracker-like, unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs.
But most importantly, they will feast. They will recline in their seats and eat like kings. Passover is the beginning of free Jewish existence. Free from Pharaoh’s bondage, free from a sub-par place in society. The Jews are celebrating. We’re on our way out of Egypt, through the stunning split of the Red Sea, en route to real nationhood, with G-d at the core.
It’s the newest, strangest, hardest holiday one could ask for — and I don’t mean because of the bitter herbs. Passover is a celebration of the blossoming Jewish nation, finally free to self-define. But the path toward self-definition is a rocky one, and our rituals don’t shy away from that fact.
Let’s play it out.
G-d takes the Jews out of Egypt. He takes a poor, struggling nation and frees it from its oppressing nation. We know this story. It all checks out. We’re happy, right?
Not quite what really happens when you’re given freedom.
Every year, part of the text in the Haggadah read aloud at the Seder says, “Look in the mirror and see yourself as if this were the day you were leaving Egypt.” And we ask ourselves: Who are you? Who do you see?
Are you a victor? Are you unconcerned about the negative past and thrilled by the promise of a bountiful future?
Are you ripe with the hope of a new beginning?
Are you feeling bit lost, maybe a bit perplexed about how this transition will go?
Who are you?
How difficult is this moment!
This is the paradox of freedom: It’s a time to rejoice…in struggling.
Freedom does not mean the negation of struggling. On the contrary, freedom is TOUGH. Passover marks the beginning of a journey that’s so long it doesn’t even fit within the five books of the Torah. (The last book ends with Moses’ death and the continuation of Jews wandering in the desert, which they do for 40 years before they reach the promised land of Israel.)
The Ryland’s Haggadah. This Medieval Jewish illuminated manuscript is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It will be opened to a new page each month, allowing visitors to the museum just enough time to meditate on the Exodus from Egypt.
Indeed, a significant part of the Passover Seder involves questioning. We ask about and analyze the story to pieces, debating its details for long hours before eating. We encourage children to ask at the Seder’s beginning so they can adjust their minds to the practice of challenging what they already know. True freedom comes loaded with challenge — so much so that I might argue that we’ve never had true freedom to begin with.
So if neither our joyous Seders nor five books of the Torah can justify freedom as a celebration of a peaceful resolve — then what’s so good about freedom?
The journey itself, of course.
The Exodus marks the first time in our national existence that we have the ability to wander. We are free not only from the bondage of slavery but also — and more importantly — from the limitation on our definition of self.
Along with Passover comes an often overlooked period of 49 days on the Jewish calendar — Sefirat Ha’Omer, or the counting of the 7 weeks it took the Jews to arrive at Mount Sinai, where they received the Torah after…well, after all that.
Each day of Sefirat Ha’Omer corresponds with one of 49 traits of the human heart. Traits like lovingkindness. Strength. Balance. Glory. Connection.
Each day, as we continue to relive the journey of Passover, we also come one step closer to refining the deeply meaningful and good values that we hold as human beings.
We do this as we embrace our freedom. We are new. We are on our first journey toward self-creation. We are inducted into the most basic human struggle — how to trust ourselves, and how to love our fellow man.
Passover is OUR time to be the maker. This is our time to create our own modes of selfhood, of self-protection and self-knowledge. Every year, again and again, we renew our freedom and ponder the next realm of the unknown.
Nobody is ready.
But that’s okay — because we have 49 days to grow ourselves again. To begin again. To relearn what it means to be kind, strong and grounded. To remember that we can trust G-d always. But as human beings, we are the ones taking the journey. Even if we feel vulnerable, tired, confused and unprepared, we’re going to step up. Own that journey.
And that, my friends, is what’s worth celebrating and what’s so great about freedom.
My blessing to all of you: “Look in the mirror and see yourself as if this were the day you were leaving Egypt.” May you love your journey as you start toward the best version of yourself.
REBECCA BLADY is a writer/editor living in Brooklyn, NY and working in film and video production. Prior to Brooklyn, Rebecca lived in Israel, where she taught English and mentored Ethiopian-Israeli youth at risk, and spent time traveling in Eastern Europe. She is a Brandeis University graduate and has written and thought extensively on concepts of nationalism, state and peoplehood. She loves her family, spiritual Judaism, yoga, music and meaningful, worldly conversation. Follow her on Twitter and check out the SoulWriter, her blog.