How can we mark our freedom this Pesach in a period of dread?


It may understandably be a struggle to relate to the concept of freedom this year when our situation is fraught with fear and concern (Photo: Flash 90)

April 23, 2024 12:51

Passover, the festival of our freedom, arrives this year at a time when freedom for the Jewish people seems more diminished than it has been in recent memory.

Since October 7, Jews around the world have suffered a significantly higher number of incidents of antisemitism. Many Jews do not feel that they can carry on about their daily lives without hesitation and worry. Israel’s friends have felt increasingly able to criticise its approach to defending itself. And then Iran’s unprecedented, direct attack prompted further warnings from the US and others not to retaliate out of concern that it would destabilise the region and bring about a greater war. So, how are we meant to relate to the concepts of freedom this year when our situation is fraught with fear and concern?

The late British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote that freedom is the ability to do or be all that one is able to do or be, without interference. That is, that each of us has the potential for the full achievement of ourselves. To be free is to actualise that potential in harmony with others. This is true not only for individuals but also for groups of people — even nations.

Restrictions on freedom inhibit us from being able to be all we are. These inhibiting factors can take many forms. They can come from external oppression or they can come from internal fears and blocks. So, what indeed would it be like for the Jewish people to be all that we are without impediment? And are there ways to come closer to manifesting it?

The age-old Jewish yearning for Mashiach is essentially a hope to see the answer to that question materialise. Maimonides saw it this way: “[We] do not yearn for the days of Mashiach so that we might dominate the world, or oppress other nations…nor so that we might eat, drink and be merry…but rather that we should not live under oppression and persecution…[or] with war and competition”. The dream of Mashiach is manifest in Isaiah Berlin’s definition of freedom.

The establishment of the state of Israel was a major step in that direction. After 2,000 years of exile it gave the Jewish people an ability to flourish and thrive in a way that had been severely restricted to them. With the state of Israel, the Jewish people can finally return home and be free.

On a basic level, the very ability for the Jewish people to do so long bordered on the euphoric. In his 2000 book The Will to Live On, Herman Wouk recounts an interchange between him and David Ben-Gurion that highlights this point. Ben-Gurion said to Wouk: “You must return here to live, this is the only place for Jews like you. Here you will be free.” “Free?” responded Wouk, “With enemy armies ringing you, with their leaders threatening to wipe out the ‘Zionist Entity’, with your roads impassible after sundown — free?” “I did not say safe,” replied Ben-Gurion, “I said free.”

Indeed, safety is not a common outrider of freedom. And as we have come to know first-hand, freedom is not free. It is only acquired at very high costs with relentless conviction and perseverance. It is also a process. It includes great risks and grave losses, the most painful of which are human lives. The hard and awkward truth is that the road to freedom is replete with obstacles and dangers. In navigating that road, there are inevitably, and regrettably, failures. But, we have made it this far through many generations. And we will continue to thrive through many more.

This year, around our Seder tables, we can reflect on how far we’ve come to live in freedom as Jews in this world, and be grateful and blessed for this. But we should also ask ourselves, what would it be like if the Jewish people were able to be all they are in this world without impediment? And perhaps more importantly, what might we do to bring that reality closer?

The answer to this question will one day manifest, if not in our lifetime, then in that of those who follow us and whose learning begins at the Passover table in the story told to generation after generation.

Until then, it is important for us to learn how to find harmony in the imperfect times in which we live and how best we can serve God by servicing His world. We will continue through trial and error to pursue this path of hope and vision, undaunted by those who reject our right to freedom or existence. We will continue to faithfully tell our epic, age-old story every Passover until the dream of our full freedom becomes a reality.

April 23, 2024 12:51

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