We need little less ‘freedom,’ lot more Seder

It’s that special time of the year again when supermarkets in heavily Jewish neighborhoods advertise their Passover wares, all conveniently stocked under one roof. And inevitably, some clichéd tagline along the lines of, “helping you celebrate freedom!” will grace those holiday ads.
The advertising executives, with their catchy phrases, harken us back to the times when God redeemed His people from the bonds of Egypt that we may lighten our pockets at our local grocery stores.
It may sound unusual, but every year when I encounter these advertising slogans it brings about a particularly painful and prolonged visceral reaction inside of me. It bothers me. Do these chain stores think they understand the freedom that I am celebrating?  And for that matter, I’m not sure my fellow Jews understand either.
I imagine families around their Seder tables, struggling in their attempt to connect to a story of slavery and redemption thousands of years old. More recent examples of slavery and freedom from bondage will become topics of conversation. The slavery and liberation of Black slaves in the south will surely be referenced, and perhaps a somber contemplation of the current plight of Yazidi women in the hands of ISIS. The value of freedom will be extolled and most likely an acknowledgment of the blessings of life in America, “the land of the free.”
The modern conception of freedom, however, lies far in its connotation from the Biblical freedom that we commemorate in the yearly Seder. After all, for all of the blessings that modern freedom affords us, it has been nothing if not a mixed blessing for the Jews. For inasmuch as there has never been a time in our history with as much religious freedom, economic opportunity or physical security as we have now in America, there has also never been a time such as this of such great internal defection, with nearly 6 in 10 Jews intermarrying, 1 in 5 Jews describing themselves as having no religion, just 19 percent of Jewish adults who feel that observing Jewish law is essential to being Jewish and just 26 percent of U.S. Jews who describe their religion as being very important in their lives (A Portrait of Jewish Americans — Pew Research Center, 2013).
It’s no surprise, then, that Hanukkah has overtaken Passover as the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday. Tim Newcomb, in an article in Time (“Why Hanukkah Is the Most Celebrated Jewish Holiday In America,” 2011), notes, “The lack of strict rules makes the holiday easy — and fun — to celebrate, which may be why research now shows Hanukkah is more celebrated — whether through the lighting of candles, gift giving, attending a party or a full celebration of the festival in Jewish practice — than even Passover.” In other words, Hanukkah, unlike Passover with its myriad rituals and requirements, is the quintessential holiday for the modern, “free” American Jew — fewer rules and more fun.
What, then, is this freedom that the Torah asks us to commemorate for all generations?  If you read the Biblical text carefully you will notice that the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is not so much a freedom from bondage but a transfer of ownership from one slave master to another. As Moses stresses over and over in the Biblical narrative, it is only for the purpose of serving the one and only God at the Holy Mountain that the Hebrews were to leave the confines of Egypt.
“And afterwards, Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, ‘So said the Lord God of Israel, “Send out My people, and let them sacrifice to Me in the desert.” ’ ” (Exodus 5:1)
The Jews were to leave the tyrannical rule of a human despot for the loving service of their Maker on high.
The sages of the Talmud hint to the Torah’s unique vision of freedom by stating that the same letters that make up the word cheirut, “freedom,” also comprise the word charut, “engraved,” a reference to the engraved lettering of the Ten Commandments of stone. The lesson is that true freedom is only to be found in adherence to divine law.
Here lies the paradox of the Passover celebration. The night of the celebration of our national freedom is commemorated in highly legalized pageantry. The name of the night’s proceedings, the Seder, meaning “order,” is taken from the detailed laws that dominate the night.
The freedom that we commemorate on Passover is a liberty laced with great personal and national responsibility. If we exercise our freedom to fulfill our obligations and spiritual calling, then freedom becomes a vehicle for good; but if we approach freedom as carte blanche to do and act as we please, then freedom takes more away from us than it offers in return.
The great freedoms of our country have given a broken people reeling from the horrors of Nazi Europe a fresh chance at life and they have also, unmistakably, taken a toll on our people’s spiritual core. As we celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage together with our freedoms of today, let us remember the costs of freedom and ensure that we are celebrating and utilizing the honorable brand of freedom and not the indulgent variety that has become popular of late.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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