Thursday, April 17, 2008

Freedom to what?

Well, what would Passover be without a little pontification - funny word for a Jew to use since it relates to Pontiff - and, anyway, I prefer to think of what I'm about to foist on you as public reflection.

Passover is the holiday of deliverance, freedom. These are terms that have been so abused lately it seems like a good time to reconsider them. "Deliverance" must necessarily be joined to the word "from". We're delivered from something, which begs the question, from what? The word freedom must necessarily be joined to the word "to", freedom to do something, but again, to what?

In the Passover story the answer to the question of deliverance is a no-brainer, it's deliverance from slavery, from tyranny, from spiritual and physical oppression. But the "freedom to" part is less obvious, although, God's answer is pretty straight forward. In fact, He couldn't be clearer about it. He tells the Israelites up front that they're being liberated in order to worship Him and He makes sure that they leave Egypt with all the things they need to have a festival in His honour. This is also part of the reason why we have a seder, an event in which from the moment we wash our hands before we sit down to the dinner table to the moment we get up to leave, everything is meticulously prescribed and scripted.

Now one might justifiably ask what kind of freedom is that? God releases us from bondage in order that we worship Him and commands us to have a feast. And we commemorate this event by following a script in which we're told what to say, what to eat, even when to ask questions. Sounds more like a new form of tyranny.

Well, it would be tyranny if God had made it a condition of deliverance, which He didn't. He frees the Israelites without any guarantees that they will abide, and in fact, they have second and third thoughts with respect to their newfound freedom. They flounder and want to return to Egypt time and again. They find out that in many respects their freedom presents a greater challenge to them than being in bondage. Now they must take full responsibility for their decisions. So the first answer to the question of "freedom to what?" is freedom to make responsible decisions and suffer the full consequences.

But what about the ritual of the Seder? Why not celebrate our newfound freedom with a wild bash, getting blitzed out of our brains, eating at the best restaurants and then dancing the night away. The way we celebrate every other event in our lives from birthdays and anniversaries to Stanley Cup Championships. A real party! Why the structure, the restraint, the order? The reason is because we are meant to understand that true freedom comes with mindfulness and meaning, not the ability to do anything we want or the capacity to afford gourmet meals and the most expensive booze. Freedom comes with being able to see that every action, no matter how small or quotidian (like having a dinner of basic foods like the one we share at Passover) is meaningful and significant. The highly structured nature of the evening frees us to put aside superficialities (like what's on the menu and how it will taste and even the casual conversation that usually attends meals) and to delve more deeply into the meaning of all that is before us and the drama in which we are participating, and not just an historical drama, but the drama of daily life itself.

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