With the great influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel in the 1990’s, there was a tremendous effort at outreach. Here were so many of our brethren, coming from a restrictive and punitive Soviet regime that forbade and the vilified the practice of religion. We could now expose them to the wisdom and beauty of our heritage. We were very excited by the opportunity and many of us jumped on the bandwagon.
But our efforts were not an unqualified success. And I think I understand one of the reasons why. We neglected to learn the lessons of the Exodus from Egypt.
Or, as a former Russian put it to us, “It is like putting a chicken in the freezer for 70 years and then expecting it to fly.”
There were many steps that needed to be travelled between leaving “Mother Russia” and embracing a relationship with God and Torah.
Likewise, the Exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah were not simultaneous events. They did not occur all at once. It was a process.
The Jewish people first needed physical freedom. But that wasn’t all – or perhaps even the most important component. We needed psychological freedom as well, a freedom that is actually always available no matter the circumstances, and a freedom that is even more crucial.
Perhaps no contemporary Jewish figure taught us this lesson more eloquently than the former refusenik, Natan Sharansky, who is today the chairman of The Jewish Agency. Not only did he learn Hebrew through the plumbing pipes (through the toilet to be exact) that ran from his cell to that of a fellow traveler, but at the moment when his physical freedom seemed imminent, he risked it all for the sake of his Book of Psalms, his source of solace, defiance, identification and spiritual sustenance throughout those bleak days.
Psychological freedom is more necessary than physical freedom and, yet, much more difficult to achieve.
We start with Passover. We start with physical freedom. We start with moving out from under the tyranny of other nations. But we need our psychological freedom too. And we begin this process on Passover as well.
But we don’t finish it until seven weeks later, until Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah. The Almighty knows that real change doesn’t happen overnight (whatever our politicians may tell us!).
And for many of us, seven weeks is not long enough to break the habits of a lifetime (or even the past year) and certainly not if we don’t put the proper time and effort into it.
The Exodus from Egypt is a gift of opportunity. It’s a gift of potential. It’s not the end of the story, but the beginning. It’s our job to write the remaining chapters, to break free from all the forces of slavery and to subordinate ourselves only to the Almighty.
This is a big job, even if we haven’t been in the freezer for 70 years! (Speaking of which, my freezer is full of brisket, macaroons and potato kugel…) It’s a task we can’t hope to complete within the one week of the holiday. But we need to get started. As it says in Ethics of Our Fathers, “Our job is not to complete the task, nor are we free to idle from it.” We need to take the first steps and the Almighty, who took us out of bondage so long ago, will take us the rest of the way.