We all recognize the danger of taking things out of context. I bet we've all had the personal experience of being misquoted -- either to a friend in a way that starts a fight, or if you or your spouse has ever been interviewed for a newspaper. It's difficult to completely trust what you read. The funniest thing I heard lately was a baseball player who had written his autobiography complaining that he was misquoted!
Even if the quote is accurate, it may be taken out of context, completely distorting it.
With regards to Passover, the Almighty's words have also been taken out of context, giving us a distorted picture of what the holiday is about.
Everyone is familiar with Moses' rallying call, "Let my people go." But how many of us know it's not his own words? It's the Almighty's words. And more importantly, how many of us know the rest of the quote?
God told Moses to say to Pharaoh, "Let my people go so that they may serve Me." Not just "let my people go," but let my people go with a purpose.
And not just any purpose, but that they may serve the Almighty.
Passover is not a rallying cry for all the oppressed peoples of the world. It's not about the "liberated lamb" (like one hagaddah I saw), feminism or even the Iraqis. Oppression is a terrible thing and we should definitely work to fight it; it's just not what Passover is about.
Passover is about the Jewish people forging a relationship with God. It's not about physical freedom. Physical freedom is just the prerequisite. As Abraham Maslow pointed out in discussing man's hierarchy of needs, we need our physical needs taken care of before we can probe more deeply.
On Passover, we celebrate God's gift of freedom from bondage that gives us the energy and motivation to grow spiritually.
The goal is psychological and spiritual freedom leading to the individual and collective ability to devote ourselves to God. Some people can achieve this freedom while still physically enslaved -- Natan Sharansky learned Hebrew in a KGB cell -- but most of us need the physical freedom first. On Passover, we celebrate God's gift of freedom from bondage that gives us the energy and motivation to grow spiritually. Once physical freedom is achieved, the real work begins.
There is a particular generosity to this gift. Freedom without purpose leaves us confused. Sometimes a freed criminal returns to jail; Russians have returned to the former USSR. Without goals, we don't know what to do with our freedom. Without a purpose, imprisonment can be more comfortable. Too many choices and options can overwhelm us. Although we say that freedom from Egyptian tyranny would have been enough (dayenu!), the true gift the Almighty gave us is purpose to our freedom; an end goal. We want to use our liberty to serve the Almighty.
On Passover we want to get free of the psychological impediments to our relationship with God. Chametz, leaven, represents one of those obstacles -- it's puffy, inflated, like our egos -- and our egos stand in the way of all our relationships, preventing us from putting the needs of others first or subjugating ourselves to a higher power.
And there are other obstacles as well that hold us back from being true to ourselves and our people. Perhaps it's the desire for the approval of others, perhaps it's our need for status or financial security, perhaps it's our drive to accomplish. We all have some combination of blocks.
As with any change, we need to begin slowly. For many years I worked on recognizing that I'm not in control and letting go. But the illusion has been hard to relinquish. Finally I said to myself that this isn't getting anywhere; let me try something smaller where I have a real chance of success. So I tried working on not caring about my weight (I don't know why I thought that was smaller!) and met with failure once again.
But like the Jewish people hanging on through years of tortured slavery and persevering as they wandered through the desert, I have not given up. I know that there are a lot of issues that stand in the way of fully realizing my potential. If I worry about what people think of me, perhaps I'll compromise in my relationship with the Almighty. If I worry about my financial status, perhaps I'll make unethical decisions or teach my children harmful lessons. If I focus on my accomplishments, I'll lose sight of the Source of all my gifts.
I'm going to focus on gratitude -- that all the good in my life comes from God, which, in turn, will inspire me to want to serve Him with greater devotion. With war in the world and people living in misery and under cruel dictatorships, it's a good time to appreciate what I have. After all, that's exactly what the song Dayenu is all about.
The goal of Passover is to free ourselves from these impediments so we can wholeheartedly develop our relationship with others and with the Almighty and so we can stand up for what we believe. "Let my people go" is an important beginning. "So that they may serve me" is the definitive destination. If we can teach ourselves and our children one thing about Passover this year, let's teach them its true goal.