What Passover has to tell us about freedom

Five Jewish leaders reflect on the Exodus story and its theme of liberty from slavery, and consider the message it has for the world today


Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi, says: "At Pesach we are encouraged to grapple with one of the most profound questions to confront human civilisation: What is freedom?

"In the biblical account of the Exodus, the Israelites celebrated their freedom while still slaves to their Egyptian overlords. How can one explain this? 

"The answer is both powerful and life affirming. On April 19 1943, the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto held a makeshift Passover meal, celebrating their freedom. The Ghetto, however, was anything but free and Nazi soldiers were in the process of liquidating it. 

"Freedom is not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of a meaningful route to self-fulfilment. The Israelites and the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto found spiritual freedom even in the midst of the most extreme hardship.

"In Jewish tradition we differentiate between yi’ud, which means fate and goral, which means destiny. My fate is the hand of cards that I am dealt. My destiny is how I choose to play them.

"Regardless of the hand we are dealt, every one of us is free to shape our own destiny even in the most challenging of times." 

This is an abridged version of a talk given by the Chief Rabbi on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day 


Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism, says: "The Seder is not just a celebration of Jewish emancipation. When we tell our story of freedom from slavery, and the exodus from Egypt, we are reminding ourselves not just of the past, but the present too.

"It’s a global disgrace that today, there may be as many as 46 million people living in modern slavery. Freedom is not just a concept. Pesach is not just a metaphorical moment. With the number of modern slaves increasing year on year — for example, through the recruitment of child soldiers, sex trafficking, forced labour, domestic servitude — a lack of freedom is a stain of shame on our modern world.

"The Passover Seder is the most universal of Jewish moments, and by no coincidence the most observed Jewish custom in Britain. We should be driven to observe the Seder not just because of our desire to celebrate our freedom, but through our determination that others should share in it. 

"As Jews, we accept our responsibility to bring freedom where there is oppression, and our share of culpability when we don’t speak up against it. 
For me, the Seder is an opportunity to start to rectify some of the most pressing concerns in our world." 


Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi, Masorti Judaism, says: "The Haggadah, the Passover story, is the foundation of Judaism. Our people is born, not amidst battles and victories, but in slavery. Through experiencing injustice, cruelty and the loss of freedom, we learn the importance of justice, truth, compassion and liberty. These values form the basis of our faith, our ethics and the society we strive to create. 

"We have carried this vision through every country of our dispersion and our return home to our land. Our repeated history of marginalisation, persecution and exile has merely sharpened the awareness that we, and everyone, are safe only in a world of justice, truth and freedom.

"God heard our cry in Egypt; God always heeds the tears of the oppressed. But God is not obviously revealed in our day in supernatural signs and wonders; God doesn’t reach down and intervene in history. 

"Instead, God seeks us as partners. A fragment of the divine resides in us all, commanding us to work for the sacred vision of a redeemed world, free from slavery, trafficking, hunger, homelessness and cruelty.

"Tyranny is growing across the globe. Nothing is more urgent than the ancient Jewish task of pursuing justice, truth, freedom and the dignity of all."


Danny Rich, Senior Rabbi of Liberal Judaism, says: "What might Pesach — zeman cherutaynu: the season of our freedom — mean when the Haggadah demands: 'In every generation every person must see themselves as if they themselves were personally freed from Egyptian bondage'?

"There have been times and places in Jewish history where Jews felt the fear of physical oppression but today Jews enjoy greater freedom than they have ever experienced.

"After the Brexit vote last June I toured many of the 40 Liberal Judaism constituent communities in Denmark, Ireland, Scotland and England and I found many of my congregants deflated, shocked and even depressed about the future of the UK and Europe.

"The freeing of the Hebrew slaves from bondage was only the beginning and the Torah reminds us that the Israelites remained an 'am k’shay oref' — 'a stiff-necked people' (Exodus 32:9 ) as they wandered the desert. The Children of Israel had escaped physical bondage but not the trauma it had caused.

"At our post-Brexit Sedarim this year may we seek to free ourselves from the burdens of cynicism and hopelessness such that — as the Exodus story reminds us — in partnership with God, the Promised Land lies ahead not behind us."


Joseph Dweck, Senior Rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community, says: "There are moments in life that bring us a deep sense of value. It could be the birth of a child, a wedding day, or a moment of great accomplishment. When we experience such moments it is as if the world reveals itself to us in perfection. We perceive these moments to be filled with grace, and we might feel that our lives were worth even one such experience. 

"This is what lies behind the portion of the Haggadah we call Dayenu ('Enough for Us'). Dayenu lists the gracious acts of God that brought us out of Egypt. After mentioning each one, we exclaim Dayenu! — 'It would have been enough for us!' not because we wouldn’t have needed more, but because the experience,  even once, of the Creator’s kindness would have been enough for us to say that it was all worth it.

"Dayenu is part of the Seder because our freedom is fundamentally based upon the idea that the world is meaningful, and thus, so are our choices. We yearn to be free in order to choose and achieve meaningful lives. 

"When we are fortunate enough to experience a 'Dayenu moment', we are reminded, deep in our hearts, that our lives matter, our choices matter, and that even if it is but once in a lifetime, seeing it is knowing that it is indeed enough."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive