By Dr. Susie Tanchel, JCDS Head of School
Growing up, I loved candy. As a kid, I wondered why the adults around me didn’t eat candy all the time. I mean, they had the freedom to do it, so why didn’t they just indulge constantly? Though I did not know it at the time, I was wondering about the nature of freedom. What meaning did it have to the adults around me? Now as an adult, I am curious about the same thing — albeit from a very different perspective — as we prepare to celebrate another Pesach.
The Torah offers at least one response to the question I asked as a sweet-toothed child. Shmot 7:16 states: שַׁלַּח אֶת-עַמִּי וְיַעַבְדֻנִי (“Release my people, so that they may serve me.”) The grammatical structure of this verse makes clear that the very purpose of the freedom from slavery is to serve God. While I appreciate that we each have a different interpretation of precisely what “serving God” means, it remains clear that freedom has an intended purpose. In other words, freedom is intimately — and necessarily — connected with responsibility.
According to our Haggadah, one of the responsibilities our freedom demands is for us to retell the story of our Exodus. In this process, our attention is focused on the immediacy of each night of the Seder as famously epitomized with the question: “Why is this night so different from other nights?” And yet in one of the most famous paragraphs of the Haggadah, the obligation does not seem to be so time-bound:
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים
In every generation one has to see/view oneself as if he or she came out from Egypt.
This passage does not specify that we need to see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt only on this night; rather, “in every generation…” implies that we have an ongoing obligation to do so. This interpretation is further strengthened by the Sephardi and Yeminite versions of the Haggadah, in which the instruction is להראות את עצמו “to show oneself” as part of the Exodus story. This distinction between seeing and showing ourselves as newly free people reminds us that it is not enough to talk about this story for one night; we have to figuratively inhabit the transition to liberation — and then act with the awareness that our freedom demands. Moreover, while we can see ourselves in private, the act of showing demands the presence of an other, be it a single witness or an entire community. By both seeing and showing ourselves as if we came out of Egypt, the many years between then and now collapse. Now we are recalling the Exodus not as an event that took place long ago to our ancestors, but as a foundational narrative of our People that continues to have meaning today. We are obligated to derive our own personal purpose from this story and to act in our lives in accordance with its implications.
Just last week, I learned with and from our 4th graders as they took the lead in creating a space in which they, their parents, and teachers could grapple with timeless questions during their Milestone. They shared poetry and music, and then led their families and friends in profound text-based conversations about slavery and freedom. They asked us to consider: what does it mean to be free? How can a person have an enslaved mind even if his/her body is free, and vice versa? Who is not free, and what can we do for those that are still enslaved? Their authentic curiosity about the full meaning of freedom and its impact not only on their lives, but on the lives of everyone in the world, inspired me to reflect more deeply on the enduring legacy of our narrative.
Thus, the questions I am left thinking about even as I invest much energy into planning our Seders are: what am I going to do next week, next month, to keep the spirit and meaning of freedom alive? What is the national memory of the slavery of my people going to propel me to do? And I now I know it means more than just buying candy – though there might be a little of that too.
I wish you and your families a chag kasher ve’sameach.