silhouette hand with chain is absent and blurred sky in sunrise background representing the freedom of the Jews from their shackles during Pesach.

This period of the Jewish calendar is referred to as Zman Cheiriteinu — the time of our freedom. It is when we celebrate our independence and commemorate God’s salvation of the Bnei Yisrael, Israelites, from their Egyptian servitude.

Year after year, we speak of our freedom, but what precisely are we celebrating when we spotlight freedom? Is it the ability to make choices, our power to express agency or our opportunity for self-actualization? Consider, in fact, that any notion of freedom may be an illusion. If you reflect on our lives, it would seem we are never truly “free.”

Parshat Pesach 8: Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17; Numbers 28:10-25; Isaiah 10:32-12:6.

While the notion of absolute freedom may be appealing, is it at all healthy? If freedom is the ability to make unhindered choices, we have only to read the works of psychologist Barry Schwartz and similar thinkers who ascribe anxiety and depression as consequences of unrestrained choice.

Even at the dawn of our ancestors’ new freedom, the Israelites were still under the spell of their captors. In the Torah portion read on the seventh day of Pesach, we commemorate the escape from Egypt and Egypt’s demise in the Reed Sea. The narrative describes the Israelites, led by Moses and guided by God, as dependent and vulnerable. They are protected from the heat of the desert day by a cloud and the chill of the night by fire. These phenomena also act as GPS, leading them away from their pursuers. The Israelites are anything but free and must take a circuitous route to avoid any element of conflict that could lead to fear and a desire to return to Egypt.

And when, at Mount Sinai, they receive the Torah and its precepts, haven’t they merely swapped the slavery of Egypt for the tethers that bind them to their faith and practice? They will receive laws that will confine them to a way of life, to practices and ethics that are restricting. Even when they enter the land of Canaan, promised to their fore-fathers, are they truly free?

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There are four Hebrew expressions of salvation the Torah emphasizes, each represented by a cup of wine at the seder: I will bring you out; I will save you; I will redeem you; I will take you. These verbs describe God’s commitment to redeem the Israelites and make us His own.

The exodus from Egypt contained two elements, freedom from slavery and redemption by God who gave us the framework to guide our lives. Our freedom cannot be uncoupled from redemption — the two are intertwined. Freedom in and of itself is not a virtue unless accompanied by salvation.

Anarchy and nihilism do not provide humans with a healthy framework by which we can live our lives, nor does absolute freedom. It is no coincidence that the holiday of Pesach is ritually linked to Shavuot. What we celebrate on Pesach is the freedom to practice as Jews within the framework of our rich heritage and meaningful traditions. The time of our freedom is bound to Shavuot, the time of receiving the Torah. On Pesach, it is not absolute freedom we celebrate; rather, it is freedom with purpose. The greatest expression of our freedom is not to act as we see fit but to act as God’s chosen.

Rabbi Azaryah Cohen
Rabbi Azaryah Cohen

Rabbi Azaryah Cohen is head of school at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield.