Passover is the festival of freedom, yet it has more rules than all of the other festivals put together. And at least for this modern American, these two features seem incompatible.
Want to celebrate freedom? Get a ticket to Maui and do whatever you want for a week. Don’t tell me that I am going to have to spend days with my head in an oven, shuffling boxes of cookware from the garage to the kitchen and back, and covering my counters with that sticky stuff that doesn’t stick except for where you don’t want it to. And don’t get me started about the things I would like to eat but can’t for a week, and the things that I do eat for a week that will stay in my stomach for days on end.
None of this feels very liberating. But there’s more. After all that cleaning and cooking, we enact our liberation by staying up late, engaging in a ritual that we are too tired to really get into because we are too wiped out from all the freedom we have been getting ready for. This will be followed by days of synagogue services. The first day is OK because it’s new(ish). The second day is tolerable, even though it’s mostly a repeat of day one. But by the seventh day, I don’t want to be at services anymore and I really don’t want to be surrounded by praying Jews. By the end of this weeklong celebration of liberty, I can anticipate another exhausting evening getting all those dishes switched and boxes repacked so we can eat normally the next day.
The sheer quantity of rules on Passover is astonishing, even for people who always observe them — and even for those of us who love doing so. And that is why we have to take the paradoxical nature of the holiday to heart. All these rules must not be some unanticipated byproduct, but are somehow at the core of this festival.
Freedom itself is paradoxical. It is that which we most desire and that which we most avoid — both at once. The psychoanalyst Eric Fromm made this very point in his wonderful book Escape from Freedom, in which he talks about the human fear of responsibility. The thought that we must actually take charge of our own lives is terrifying.
I remember years ago working as a legislative aide for my congressman, who had served previously in the California State Assembly. In a very revealing moment, he once confided in me that the whole time he was in Sacramento he never really worried about what they were doing with legislation. He always assumed that whatever they got wrong would be cleaned up by the experts in Washington. Then he became a congressman and suddenly he was one of those experts in Washington. He looked around at his fellow representatives and realized it was the same imperfect people with no more expertise than he had witnessed in the state capitol.
There is no one cleaning up our lives or our world for us. That reality is terrifying.
Fromm argues that there are two moves we typically make in the face of this terror. In totalitarian societies, we avoid it by supporting dictators, whether fascist or communist. We see this in our own day, when so many millions are seduced by charismatic bullies who promise to solve everything, often through imposition and violence. In so-called free countries, abdication of responsibility often looks like social conformity. We willingly submit to a smothering consensus, watching the same handful of movies and TV shows, listening to music selected by an algorithm, “choosing” from the same narrow set of consumer products advertisers present to us. It’s frightening to have to choose for ourselves, but our “free”market saves us from that while fostering the illusion that we’re making a genuinely free choice.
Both of these options — demagoguery or public relations — are dodges that enable us to avoid taking responsibility for our own choices. Similarly, Passover recognizes that freedom is almost as terrifying as slavery. There was a good reason why the Israelites, once freed from bondage, longed for life in Egypt where all was taken care of.
Freedom takes courage. It requires standing up to external forces that would cow us into silence and ask us to simply go along with the program. It demands that we resist the inner voices telling us that we’re inadequate and unworthy. Yet we also have liberating voices inside ourselves. Alongside the voice of Pharaoh we contain the liberating courage of Moses and Miriam, who showed us that what is possible is better than what we are born into.
Perhaps the secret is to not try to resolve the paradox, but to enter it. All the customs and laws of the holiday serve to help us do this, to make the tension visible and conscious. They prevent us from equating the easy way with liberation. Fighting demagogues, birthing a society that is truly inclusive and diverse, crafting a Jewish literacy that has the power to shape lives — just like real freedom, these all take effort. And it is in the doing that real transformation occurs. The rules of Passover strengthen the Moses and Miriam within, empowering us to break the chains that bind us and enabling us to march to a freedom worthy of this great heritage.
This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Apr. 8, 2023. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.