“Let My people go so that they may serve Me.”
When we read this line in the Book of Exodus (9:13), our entire notion of liberation is altered. The first four words are what most of us are familiar with. Those are the words that make it into the catchy songs and the movies and the school-age explanations of the Passover holiday.
When we read the sentence in its entirety, its meaning becomes more complicated. Are we set free so that we are able to serve? Were we really set free? Did we leave the physical confines of slavery in order to become spiritual slaves? Is the Festival of Liberation - a celebration of freedom – really about the freedom to serve G-d? (not that that’s a bad thing)
After more than four hundred years of slavery, one does not simply become free. There are habits to break, expectations to change, and new patterns of living to learn. There is a process of moving from physical liberation to spiritual redemption. This is what takes place while we are traveling through the desert, arriving at Sinai prepared to accept a life lived with Torah.
One may look at the vast number of Jewish laws and commandments and see restriction, regulation, and constraint. From order and discipline, however, freedom is born. How does the story of the Exodus, the modern day observance of Passover, and Jewish law intertwine in a powerful teaching of restraint and liberty?
According to the Oxford American Dictionaries, discipline is “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior”. Discipline is a process. It requires commitment, dedication, and practice. That there exists freedom within discipline is one of the paradoxes of Judaism and of life itself.
From the writings of Dan Millman, author of The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, we learn much about the relationship between discipline and freedom. He tells us that self-control is the greatest expression of freedom. “Discipline,” he says, “is the surest means to greater freedom and independence; it provides the focus to achieve the skill levels and depth of knowledge that translates into more options in life.”
If we view Judaism in this way, then Jewish ritual and Jewish law are the guidelines by which we are to exert our self-control. This endeavor of commitment is what leads us to a freedom of the highest sort.
Each year at Passover, Jewish families gather around tables and embark on the retelling of a journey from slavery to freedom. Passover is – both – a physical retelling and a spiritual beginning. Each year, we experience it anew.
As we tell the story of slavery, we tell it as though we had experienced it ourselves. This year, take the story a step further and apply the lessons to modern day life. Spend some moments contemplating those things that are currently enslaving you. Imagine breaking free from a habit or a part of your life that needs to be released.
As you examine the areas of your life that are suppressing, take another moment to assess the spaces in your life that could use a bit more discipline. How will self-restraint enable you to break the bad habit? How does self-control allow you to live a life according to your values? How will discipline help you to make every action and every decision count?
Freedom is a central theme in the story of Passover. We learn that freedom does not necessarily mean doing whatever you want, whenever you want, and however you want (a lesson parents work hard to teach their children). With freedom, comes the need for rules, guidelines, and self-restraint. Passover provides us with an opportunity to explore how the enigma of freedom will unfold in our lives.