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Pesach and the Struggle for a Perfect Freedom


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Plato and the world of ideas

Plato, the famous Greek philosopher, imagined that there existed a world of forms – an ideal world.  It was a world where everything in its true ideal form existed.  The ideal chair, horse, man, form of Justice, Good and Truth. What we perceive as real in this world, he argued, is merely a reflection of the ‘form’ of that ideal that exists in another perfect realm. Only enlightened man (the philosopher) who has broken away from the chains of this world and moved out of his darkened cave to the ideal world will be free to experience true reality. The rest of us live a life of illusion imagining we are experiencing reality, when in fact we are enslaved to an existence of illusions and shadows.

Do we not sometimes all experience the chains of Plato’s humanity? Often not even realizing what we are enslaved to, until we have liberated ourselves from its claws?  But we are not Plato’s citizens at all, for in Plato’s analogy people do not even realize that another reality exists.  We on the other hand are aware that the world we live in is far beyond ideal.  We do not resemble the people located in Plato’s cave far removed from the world of forms, for we know, as the Torah relays, humans have the potential of achieving an ideal existence not up there in the heavens but down here on earth.  It is not just the elite philosopher that can exit the cave, but the flawed imperfect mortal human being, using his free will to fulfil his covenantal duties, that can achieve a perfect society in this very material concrete world.

It is true that in an ideal world there would be peace, no one would suffer. In an ideal world a malfunctioning hotplate would not lead seven young innocent children to their deaths. In an ideal world religious fanatics would not be going on killing sprees all over the globe. In an ideal world we would all know what our role and purpose in life was.  In an ideal world when we stand at the election ballot we would know with clarity and vision who to vote for. In an ideal world we would be able to achieve the right balance between self autonomy and subservience to a higher authority.  In an ideal world we would see the dignity of the other and not the incommensurate differences.  Maybe in an ideal world human beings could not exist, for their very existence presupposes non ideal actions and circumstances. Thus our existence means the world is far from Gan Eden.

But the world we live in is real and concrete and at times overwhelms us with its pain and misery, uncertainty and ambiguity.  We live in a world where we make wrong decisions, where clarity is obscured, where total unadulterated freedom results in human error and sometimes decisive evil. We strive for the ideal but we ultimately live in the real.  Is this a reality we can live with? Is the disparaging world we are confronted with something we can make sense of?

This dichotomy of ideal and real is at the very heart of two narratives we read during this time period. The narrative of the redemption from Egypt and the sacrificial service of the Mishkan. Both these narratives describe the reality as it exists and the possibility of an ideal reality.  They both contain within them the tension inherent in the oscillation between the two, the chasm existing between the divide and the ability to know that we can overcome it, or at the very least strive to live between the two.

Exodus and the struggle for Liberty

How easy is it to liberate a slave nation psychologically to live as free people? The answer is that it is almost impossible.  A task neither God nor Moses the greatest leader could achieve.  Physically liberating the people from the grip of their Egyptian task masters was the easiest stage in the movement from slavery to freedom.  It was the next stage that proved the hardest.  Bringing down a dictator, defeating a totalitarian regime – that’s easy, requiring simply a determined army or a courageous elite dedicated to revolt against the despotic regime, or in our case an outstretched Arm and a host of miracles.  But the real battle, lies neither in the hand of God nor in the guns of soldiers, but in the hearts and minds of the enslaved people. As the well-known Jewish social and political philosopher Isaiah Berlin explains in his essay Two Concepts of Liberty there exist two types of freedom, negative and positive. Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles or constraints on one’s individual actions. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realise one’s fundamental purpose – the human capacity for self-development and determination of one’s destiny.  The first is easy, the second much harder.

Thousands of years ago, when the people of Israel left Egypt, they were given freedom, but this was only an arbitrary freedom – a freedom from as opposed to a freedom to. In Berlin’s definition it was a negative freedom – freedom from slavery.  Freedom from totalitarian regimes and dictators is actually the easiest step in liberating a people. To learn how to become truly free, to decide what I have been given freedom to do, is an art.  It is not simple; it requires time, patience and a long arduous forty year journey (and arguably much longer) to realize.

The Torah seems to suggest that God and Moshe believe that the journey from negative to positive freedom, is one that can be achieved in one generation.  God redeems the people from the hands of their oppressors and simultaneously arms them with a tool kit for freedom.  He gives them all they need to fight the mental and psychological battle against a slave mindset.  The first commandment of time ensures the slave who has never possessed time, appreciates the complexity of this concept:

א וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל–מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל–אַהֲרֹן, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר.  ב הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאש חֳדָשִׁים:  רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם, לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: 2 ‘This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. (shemot 21:1)

From now on the months shall be yours, to do with them what you shall desire, For in the times of slavery your days were not yours, they were for serving others and their will..  Therefore This month shall be unto you the beginning of months for this is when your free existence begins. (seforno shemot 21:1)

Through this command God essentially tells the people ‘you are now masters of your own time. Time no longer belongs to your Egyptian task master, it is in your possession, under your control.  You may choose to do with it what you will, but know that as free people, the choice you possess comes with consequences.  Sanctify time and it will become a device to fulfil your destiny, waste it and in the end it will take possession of you and you will become enslaves to it’.

The slave lives for himself only.  God arms the people with the psychological tool of family, the comfort of belonging to something larger than themselves, a memory to pass on to their children. And so the Korban Pesach must be eaten with family or neighbours, not alone.

ח וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר: בַּעֲבוּר זֶה, עָשָׂה יְהוָה לִי, בְּצֵאתִי, מִמִּצְרָיִם

8 And thou shall tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt  (Shemot 13/8)

It gives the people the courage to stand up to their slave masters through the command of the Korban Pesach.[1]  He reaffirms their personal and national identity through the command of Brit Milah.  He reacquaints the people , with the concept of Brit – covenant. He dreams of a new reality, an ideal nation living out God’s hope and vision for humanity. A people who knew slavery and chose freedom, who came to God through the paradigm of Brit – a servitude and dedication to a renewed reality out of total freedom.  A people who understand the nuances of liberty and embrace their responsibilities from the perspective of mature and developed adulthood.  In reality this imagined ideal does not materialize.  They are unable to move past Egypt and the miracles.  His beloved people are not ready for positive liberty, instead complaining that they want to return to the ‘free’ food they received in Egypt.  According to Rashi they want a life of ‘freedom’- free from responsibilities or covenantal obligations.

ה זָכַרְנוּ, אֶת–הַדָּגָה, אֲשֶׁר–נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם, חִנָּם; אֵת הַקִּשֻּׁאִים, וְאֵת הָאֲבַטִּחִים, וְאֶת–הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת–הַבְּצָלִים, וְאֶת–הַשּׁוּמִים.  ו וְעַתָּה נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה, אֵין כֹּל—בִּלְתִּי, אֶל–הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ

5 We remember the fish, which we were to eat freely in Egypt; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic (Bamidbar 11)

What does it mean by ‘freely’ – free from the commandments – ומהו אומר חנם? חנם מן המצות:


They question God’s presence amongst them despite the continual miracles and revelation.  Their eyes are fixed on a distorted imagining of yesterday rather than a greater vision of tomorrow.  The ideal nation that God and Moshe had planned to emancipate does not come to pass. Hence unsurprisingly our Rabbis paint a picture of a coerced nation accepting the covenant of Sinai,[2] rather than a free liberated nation accepting freely the covenantal responsibilities. They imagine the people terrified cowering under the threat of Mount Sinai on their heads.  The Rabbis understood what God and Moshe did; a people redeemed by miracles, totally dependent on Gods manifest presence, living in the shadow of split seas and Divine clouds and fire, cannot be a people that willingly and freely accept their covenantal responsibilities.  Even more so the strange behaviour of the first generation that leave Egypt, the complaints, the lack of initiative, the passive demeanour – all these illustrate a people that are unable to take control of their own destiny.[3] This inability is reflected in a paragraph from the book of the renowned psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in his discussion of creativity:

It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living.  Contrasted to this is a relationship to external reality which is one of compliance, the world and its details are recognized but only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation. Compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living.  In a tantalising way many individuals have experienced just enough of creative living to recognise that for most of their time they are living uncreatively, as if caught up in the creativity of someone else, or of a machine. The second way of living in the world is recognised as illness in psychiatric terms.  In some way or other our theory includes a belief that living creatively is a healthy state, and that compliance is a such basis for life….. The creative impulse is therefore something that can be looked at as a things in itself, something that of course is necessary if an artist is to produce a work of art but also as something that is present when anyone- baby, child, adolescent, also , old man or women, looks in a healthy way at things, or does things deliberately. [4]

The people who leave Egypt, admittedly through no fault of their own, are the slave nation that has (have) been robbed of the creative element of life. They are unable to think creatively or act decidedly instead leading a life of compulsion.  This leads them to question their very existence, to ask to be killed, to want to return to a life of slavery, which by its very definition is one of death.

This defines a person who is not free. Someone free is someone who can be ‘creative’ and act deliberately having weighed up consequences, choices and priorities.  Hence the Sages insightfully understood the marriage ceremony at Sinai was not ideal since it was not made with two free and willing partners. When one partner is coerced a true covenant is not possible.  It is only thousands of years later, in Persia, far from the Divine splendour of Sinai that the people truly accept the covenant.

Pesach to Purim: Negative to Positive freedom

In the cycle of the year we move from Pesach to Purim, two redemptions, one by the hand of God the other through the will of mankind. In the Hagaddah Moshe’s name is absent, ensuring we understand this redemption came totally through the saving hand of God. In Megillat Esther God’s name is missing insisting that we recognise the redemptive qualities and responsibilities of man.   The parallel addresses the very essence of freedom and liberty.  It forces us to ask how freedom can be won. It responds to the arrogant claim that liberty is some fundamental quality and right that doesn’t require work, thought process and a ruthless battle to acquire and sustain. We begin the year by celebrating negative liberty at our Seder table and end it in Adar, the month of simcha, joy reflecting the joyful radiance of positive liberty, confident in our human abilities to strive for an ideal reality of total redemption, but at the same time celebrating even the limited redemption we are able to achieve.  Purim reminds us of the need to celebrate even temporary limited victories.

Purim is the end of a long historical process, reflected in the cyclical nature of the year.  It moves the people from negative to positive freedom, from compulsion to creative deliberate actors.  It transforms us into true covenantal partners in God’s world.  It shows us that when we choose right, we can alter our history and initiate redemption.  But because God depends on man to be an active partner in its fulfilment, it will be a process that will transpire slowly and naturally, concealing any transcendent elements.  Yet we must bless each stage, we must search for the Divinity in every natural event.  We must recognise that through the covenant man and God work together to perfect the world. Thus a seeming natural event controlled by the hands of man is concealing the other partner in the process – the Divine. Much like the bracha we make at this time of the year on seeing the buds of a new tree, we must appreciate each stage of a process, its beginning and its end. We must recognise the Divine in even the most natural of events. And like the plant and tree that requires the act of man and the grace of God, so too historical events encompass human and Divine action.

As we see in the Exodus narratives, God and Moshe attempt to transform human nature quickly from one extreme to another, and ultimately they must face the fact that such a transformation from real to ideal is impossible to achieve in one generation. So they must wait for the people to grow up, for the nation to understand the nuance and beauty of real, true liberty.  It comes with pain and sacrifice, the death of an entire generation and the failure of Moshe to enter the land.  The process is not easy, it is plagued with continued failures and tests.  But it is a journey the people must take for they must learn that part of being God’s people is to be patient in exactly the same way God is. That part and parcel of marching towards an ideal reality is stopping along the way to pick up those that have fallen, to regroup and refuel.

The American thinker Rabbi Yitz (Irving) Greenberg, whose writing has impacted me greatly, expresses these ideas beautifully in his book ‘For the Sake of Heaven and Earth’[5] when he writes:

From the divine perspective. The covenant is nothing less than God’s promise that the goal is worthy and will be realized, that humans will be accompanied all the way, and that God will provide an ongoing model of how to be human.  The Divine initiative elicits a matching response – a human promise to persevere and work until the goal is reached…..Attaining the infinite goals of this vision appears to be beyond human capacity.  The needed accomplishments appear to be so transcendent and so remarkable that in a sense only God can accomplish them.  Nevertheless, says the Bible, God has made a commitment that the final result will not be imposed; it will not be granted by Divine fiat.  The stage of perfection  will be accomplished on and through a human scale only.  The central point of the covenant process itself is that despite having all the power to do what God chooses, God has chosen to make the divinely desired outcome dependent on human capacities and efforts. [6]

The Mishkan and the tension of ideal and real

It should not surprise us that this time of year we read the narrative of the Mishkan.  The entire project of the tabernacle as well as the sacrificial service has a thematic underpinning that reminds us of this dichotomy between dreaming the dream but living the real.  There is a well known argument between Ramban and Rashi over whether the Mishkan was lechatchila  or bedi Eved, in other words whether the Mishkan is an a-priori ideal, or whether as Rashi suggests, a Divine compromise to human weakness.[7]  This argument highlights the tension of the real and ideal that we have discussed above.   Furthermore the well known argument between those thinkers that believe the sacrificial laws are part of an ideal world (Ramban[8], Yehuda Halevi) that even in the messianic period will be upheld and those (Rambam[9] and more recently Rav Kook) that see sacrificial service as part of a process to aid the people in their transition away from the idol worshipping ways which they had become accustomed to, draws on the same theme of a Divine desire for perfection  but equally an acceptance of human weakness and the need for an evolutionary process that strives for the ideal.[10]

These two themes of Exodus and sacrifices/sanctuary provide a catalyst to the overriding challenge of humanity throughout Tanach and history – can we live up to Divine expectations?  Can we be patient enough to allow change to unfold in time through the mechanism of human endeavours?  As I have written in the past, our generation are one that requires  immediate results. The pace of change is overwhelming and demands us to keep up. But ultimately we are human, we are part of a world whose existence defies perfection but equally demands it.  Thus Pesach comes to remind us of the dialectical tension between ideal and real, the evolutionary process of moving towards redemption and the faith God has in man, as much as the faith man must have in God.

It reminds us that we are creative beings, having been liberated for more than just freedom for freedom’s sake.  It is what man does with that freedom that is of vital importance. God demands of us a total commitment to change and perfection of the imperfect world we inhabit, however hard and impossible that may seem.  At our Sedarim having lived through the experience of liberation we must then commit voluntarily whilst living in our imperfect existence to the project of creating an ideal world.  Are we up to the task? Can we fulfil God’s destiny for us? Only time will tell.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve ‘Sameach [1] The Korban Pesach was to be made with a lamb, the God of the Egyptians. All the intricacies of the command are geared towards ensuring the people are able to reject the God of their Master and embrace the Israelite God and the covenant of Avraham.  See Chizkuni Shemot 12:6-9 where he explains how every part of the Korban Pesach was an exercise in fighting the psychological battle against Egypt.

[2] Talmud Shabbat 88a

[3] By the sea crying to God, constant complaints and the climatic event of the sin of the spies in rejecting any dream of a better future giving way to a childlike reactionary response lacking any foresight, dissection of reality and assessment of information and situation.

[4] It is fascinating here to use the paradigm of Haman who despite all that he has, describes his life as ‘worthless’ because Mordechai refuses to bow down to him. We see that in reality Haman is enslaved to his own fanatical desires – He is as Winnicott suggests ‘compelled’. Mordechai on the contrary is truly creative and hence totally free since he acts and thinks creatively, making deliberate and purposeful decisions. Thus Purim the chag of ‘Venahafochu’ turns the definition of freedom on its head, showing us that we must go beyond our expectations of who is free and what exactly freedom is Mordechai in Megillat Esther. Haman who in a classic reading would be the ultimate ‘free’ actor, and Mordechai who would be the ‘coerced’, are in fact quite the opposite.

[5] Whilst writing and thinking about this piece i was reading his book Between Heaven and Earth, it was only once i had expressed my thoughts that i read the part i quote here which is toward the end of the book.  It astounded me how relevant it was to what i had been writing.  Apparently my thinking has been deeply influenced by this great thinker more than i even realised!

[6] Greenberg: For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity p164

[7] See Ramban on Shemot 35:1 and 25:2 and Rashi Shemot 31:18

[8] See his commentary to Vayikra 1:9

[9] Maimonidies: Guide to the Perplexed 3:32

[10] For a more in-depth discussion on the tension between the ideal and the real in regards to Sefer Vayikra see:

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