The True Nature of Slavery and Freedom

David Abramowitz is Executive Director of Jewish Leadership Institute, a Jewish education and leadership development program for American college and graduate students. This piece is adapted from a dvar torah sent to the alumni of the program.

Small seders are only one result of the virus. There’s hardly an aspect of our lives that hasn’t been changed. We’re subject to restrictions that now govern our daily activities. This situation can bring us to an understanding of one of the critical lessons of Passover: the true nature of slavery and freedom. 

When we think of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt, what comes to mind is the work – the slave labor. Freedom means being released from that work. That’s all true, but the meaning of slavery and freedom on Passover is much deeper. 

When you’re a slave, you work because you have to. Slavery then, at its root, is the inability to choose what you do, to choose how to lead your life. In this context, freedom is much more meaningful. It goes to the heart of the human condition: the ability to seek our potential and choose our destiny.

The coronavirus has given us a gift - metaphorically. For most of us, this is the first Passover that we can experience the deeper meaning of slavery and freedom. We are living with constraints. There are things we can’t to do even if we want to. We have no choice. We can feel what it means to be a slave and how much of a gift is freedom. 

One of the most important verses in the Haggadah now comes alive for us. In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he actually left Egypt. On this Pesach, because of the virus, we can get closer than ever to what the verse is trying to teach us. We can do what the verse asks of us.

Before we pat ourselves on the back for our newfound understanding, let's do some math. In the entire history of the Jewish People, how many Jews needed a coronavirus to teach them the real meaning of slavery and freedom? Asked another way, how many years have Jews celebrated Pesach as free as we are? You don't need an algorithm to get the answer, Sadly, you don't even need a calculator. It's just a handful of decades or a small multiple thereof. Imagine: nearly every seder in all our history has been celebrated under some form of slavery. There has hardly been a Passover not haunted by the specter of anti-semitism or physical threat. 

So the coronavirus has given us another gift: perspective that leads to gratitude. Sounds strange. But when we compare our "slavery" to that of our ancestors, we realize that their slavery doesn't need quotation marks. As difficult as our situation is, we should appreciate that this is all it is.

We should be grateful that we don't face the challenges our ancestors did.

We should be grateful again that our ancestors kept Passover alive, against all odds, so that we can keep it today.

And we should be grateful again that we have a tradition that gives us the beauty that is the seder - even a small one. 

Chag Pesach Sameach

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