Why is Pesach the most observed Jewish ritual among American Jews? We’re not talking by a little here, by the way. We’re talking by leaps and bounds.
While almost 70 percent of Jewish Americans will attend a seder this year, barely 50 percent fasted this past Yom Kippur, and only slightly more than 20 percent report lighting Shabbat candles or keeping some form of kashrut. In fact, the only real “competition” Passover faces is from Chanukah, which is observed by almost as many people as attend seders.
Putting aside the significance, or lack thereof, of such ritual observance patterns as bellwethers of the depth of Jewish identity, people vote with their feet, or perhaps with their bottoms, which will be seated at tables around the nation this coming week. And if we care about people, it pays to pay attention to the choices those people — our people — make. In this case, it comes down to a single word: freedom.
Like the most common American understanding of the Chanukah story, Pesach celebrates the move from slavery and oppression to freedom and liberty — the core values which animated the founding of the United States, and continue to stand at the center of almost all debates we continue to have in this nation, whether they are about our security, economy, the social welfare of those who live here, immigration, etc.
Whether from the right or from the left, the arguments almost always concern our understanding of freedom, and what it means to secure it for ourselves and for future generations. So it’s hardly surprising that as American Jews who disagree about so much, we continue to share a deep pride in the fact of our Jewishness, and a genuine commitment to celebrating the freedom that lies at the center of both the Jewish and the American stories.
In fact, the ancient story of our freedom as Jews has never been more powerfully relevant for our deeply divided nation. Polling indicates that an unprecedented number of people in this country agree that we are in the midst of a struggle over freedom. What they don’t agree about is what that means, and that’s where Passover comes in.
According to the biblical story, Moses initially demands not that the Israelites be freed from slavery, but that they be allowed leave to worship God [Exodus 7:16], and then, it seems, continue being slaves. Only later, as the story unfolds, does Moses demand the Israelites’ national liberation.
Then as now, for some, the struggle about freedom is fundamentally about securing the “freedom to,” while for others it is truly about the “freedom from.” Without entering a debate about which is more fundamental, they are clearly both important, and just as clearly not the same — not in the biblical narrative, not for many American Jews and not for many Americans in general.
Some of us are supremely inspired by a vision of being free to pursue what we most love, and we actually worry less about the threats to those pursuits. For others, freedom means resting comfortably in the knowledge that we are free from those threats. They are then content to address the pursuit of their passions.
As the Passover story reminds our story cannot be complete without paying attention to both definitions of freedom, even if we are more engaged by one or the other. That claim, rooted in the Pesach story, can help us all, regardless of political orientation, to hold families and friends around a common seder table and around our nation’s fast-shrinking commons. It is our path out of the Egypt — literally a tight spot — in which we find ourselves, be it personal, familial, communal or national.
Whether we intuitively privilege “freedom from” or “freedom to,” we need those concepts to speak to each other, as they do in the Hebrew Bible — not always in comfortable agreement. And as we gather around tables across the nation, we need to speak to, not at, each other as well. If the Bible can make room for both freedoms, why can’t we?
Here is one way to get moving in that direction, at precisely the moment we celebrate getting moving as a people. Try a conversation over your Passover dinner that includes the following:
If you think freedom is mostly about being free from specific threats or dangers, consider the cost of that freedom. What might be at risk, or even lost, as that kind of freedom is secured? Without judging whether it is worth it or not, how do you correct for that loss?
If you view the struggle for freedom as being mostly about our “freedom to ____”, however you fill in that blank, consider the potential vulnerabilities created as part of that bargain. What correctives might minimize them?
Freedom means different things to different people, but however it is understood, that freedom is never free. So, as we gather around this year’s seder table, or our office water cooler, we might stop debating which of those definitions is correct, and consider instead the cost of the definition we like best, who pays that cost and how we go about getting it paid for.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is president of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.