The story of Passover, and the Exodus from Egypt, involves the oppressor (Pharaoh and the Egyptians) and the oppressed and enslaved (the Jews). At seders around the world, Pharaoh is the symbol from figures ranging from literal modern day slave-owners and dictators to metaphorical oppressors, such as depression and cancer. The common thread: they are destructive, and all too prevalent.
However, when people ask me what I am doing for Passover, I answer with a one-liner that only serves to stun the person I’m talking with (and always makes me feel like I just said that flowers are hideous or something): To me, Passover is the day when I celebrate the freedom I have to not observe Passover.
As someone who was raised ultra-orthodox, it is not a freedom I take for granted.
However, it leads me to wonder why I have a hard time celebrating freedom from tyranny, slavery and other similar forces. This year, I realized what is missing for me. It is an understanding that we are in a world where my freedom may be linked to another’s oppression—particularly when it comes to the freedoms associated with Jewish life.
Passover epitomizes this for me. We hear about the experiences of Jews who had to overcome adversity in order to celebrate Passover. The idea that Jews around the world can observe Passover freely is a story of triumph and a cause for celebration. But, what is missing for me is an exploration of how the freedom to celebrate Passover can be oppressive to others. It can be oppressive because it is not a choice and is, in fact, a sort of “Egypt” for some who are seeking to survive or escape their ultra-orthodox communities of origin.
I have similar feelings about other Jewish practices like the mikvah (ritual bath). There is a growing trend of Jewish communities building beautiful spa-like mikvahs for women who want to partake in the set of laws that are known as Taharas Hamishpacha (family purity). The experience of going to a mikvah changed the status of a woman who had her period from being impure to pure. I’m glad women today have found a way to create a magical experience of going to the mikvah. Mikvah goers oftentimes enjoy the experience of being pampered, relaxing and tuning into their bodies. (I, too, enjoy going to a spa.) But, it troubles me when I see a disconnect between that beautiful experience and the experience of my high school peers, some of whom dreaded the experience of going to the mikvah, but didn’t have the freedom to skip a month, or opt-out altogether.
Freedom does not just mean the freedom to do things; it means the freedom to not do them, or to do them in our own way.
My hope this Passover is that we recognize that freedom is precious and worthy of celebration and safe-guarding. We must be sure that our freedom does not enable the freedom of others to be trampled. May we all appreciate the freedoms that we do have, and continue advocating for others’ freedom as well.
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Studying text is one way to gather knowledge and inspiration as we seek to live meaningful lives and work to improve the quality of life for all people of our community. We usually study ancient texts, but sometimes more modern writing is just as powerful. Such is the case with a letter written by a young man named Andrew Pochter, which I found while preparing for an upcoming social justice text study.
A few weeks ago, Pochter, a role model for those who are dedicated to making the world a better place, died after being stabbed at a protest in Egypt. At his funeral, his sister, Emily, read a letter that Andrew had written to a camper of his. Andrew Pochter had been a counselor for a program called Camp Opportunity, a camp for at-risk children between the ages of six and 12. While Andrew was not a scholar who lived centuries ago, his letter is filled with precious thoughts and reflections that will certainly live on in the hearts of all who are fortunate to read it. May it inspire many, for generations to come.
Transcription of the letter follows:
Hello how are you man? I can’t believe it has been a year since camp. I am sure you are wiser, taller arid smarter since I saw you last. Please accept my apologies that I will not be there for the graduation ceremony. Right now I am in Alexandria, Egypt teaching English to young students who are around your age. They all speak Arabic so learning English as a second language is quite difficult. But they are all really intelligent, just like you! You would really like the Arabic language, you should check it out!
Egypt is hazardous right now because the country is feeling the consequences of a enormous political revolution. I lose electricity and water all of the time but that’s okay because Ihave many Egyptian friends to help take care of me. When I am in trouble, they take care of me and when they are in trouble, I always take care of them. Good friends do not come easily but as a rule, I always appreciate the good deeds people do for me even if I don’t know them well. What is most important is that I am trying to do my best for others. I want to surround myself with good people!
I did not come up with this personal philosophy on my own. Without thoughtful and caring people like you, I would probably be a mean and grumpy person. Your kind heart and genuine character serve as a model for me. I hope that you will never stop your curiosity for the beautiful things in life. Go on hikes in forests, canyons and mountains, go fishing, research wildlife, and get out of city Life if you can. Surround yourself with good friends who care about your future. Fall in love with someone. Get your heart broken. And then move on and fall in love again. Breathe life every day like it is your first. Find something that you love to do and never stop doing that thing unless you find something else you love more.
Don’t blame others for their mistakes. It makes you weak. You are a strong man who does not need to be weighted down by people who only complain and say negative things. Speak with conviction and believe in yourself because your personal confidence is just as important as your education.
I wish I could be there to say my congratulations but I know that it wouldn’t change much. You have earned it. Hopefully one day you will hang up this diploma next your high school and college diplomas as well.
Try not to forget me. If you ever need anything, just email:
Your Friend, Andrew Pochter”
I invite you to consider: how might you use this letter in a text study session with the youth in your community?
May Andrew’s memory be a blessing.