As I look out the window, the pond is still snow-covered, so celebrating the advent of spring seems more appealing than it has been in previous years. Spring is a major theme in the celebration of Passover. Historians teach that the agricultural aspect of Passover predates its religious meaning (exodus from Egypt). The celebration of the rebirth of nature at the end of winter is not uniquely Jewish; other ancient peoples marked the cycles of nature with religious holidays. The Jewish people, however, re-signified the celebration of nature’s changes by teaching that the Jewish people was born in the “spring” out of the “winter,” which we call “slavery” in Egypt.
In 1937, Rabbi Mordechai M. Kaplan wrote, “It is not often that an individual wants to be reminded of his humble beginnings; but that a nation in ancient times should glory in having been held in bondage by another nation is certainly an unrepeated phenomenon.”
We took the idea behind the nature-oriented holiday and gave it new, theological, meaning. Kaplan suggests that such unflattering origins contain a new and different conception about God, a unique Jewish conception that would guide us in our moral behavior. Unlike other Gods of antiquity, the God of Israel does not legitimize the power of kings and rulers, but rather imposes a code of behavior that all individuals must follow. This is the true etymology of the word yisrael, “God is our Ruler,” (implying, “not some godlike earthly king or pharaoh”). Kaplan wrote, “The first and the most solemn protest against human bondage is the declaration that the God of Israel is essentially the Redeemer of the oppressed. As believers in the God of Israel, we must hold to the conviction that slavery must be abolished not only in name, but also in fact.”
At Passover, we are reminded of the bondages in our society as a way of stressing the central teaching of our tradition, that all oppression is morally unacceptable. In the words of Kaplan, “The new redemption to which Jews look forward involves the redemption of society in general from present ills. It implies the transformation of human nature and social institutions through the divine power of intelligence and good-will.”
In this sense, the ideal of freedom we find in our festival of Passover is yet to be realized. As we celebrate Passover, let us think of the many ways we can all contribute to our congregation and our society so that we can come closer to making our ideal of freedom a reality.
Please, take a moment to comment below and add your personal way to make freedom happen.
Chag ha-pesach sameach, Happy Passover!