Jewish World Review April 21, 2003 / 19 Nissan, 5763

How to understand freedom

By Jonathan Rosenblum | The Seder nights have passed, but it is not too late to continue reflecting on the message of Passover.

In the Jewish view of time, each year we tap into the same sources of spiritual energy that existed at the time of the original events. On Seder night we do not simply remember the Exodus from Egypt; we relive it. Similarly, next Tuesday night we relive the Splitting of the Sea.

We are commanded to make our holy days contemporary. As the Haggada puts it, "In every generation each person is required to view himself as if he himself were escaping from the enslavement of Egypt..."

In his laws of the Seder, Maimonides instructs the father to point to contemporary examples of slaves in order to make the bitterness of our slavery in Egypt tangible. The quest for contemporaneity, however, can be easily distorted. In recent years we have witnessed a proliferation of Haggadas designed not so much to make the experience of the Exodus alive through current examples, but to completely remove the story from its particularistic Jewish context. The goal is not to relive the birth of the Jewish people as a nation, but to universalize the Jewish experience in a modern-day context. This universalizing tendency can be found in various "Freedom" Haggadas, in which the narrative is likely to devote as much time to Selma, Alabama, as Egypt, to Nelson Mandela as Moses.

Lost in the process for Jewish participants at those "Seders" is any deepened sense of connection to their people. Yet it is far from clear that anything is gained in terms of identification with other oppressed people, if recent events provide any clue. Opinion polls consistently showed American Jewish support for Operation Iraqi Freedom to be significantly lower than that of the general American public. Jews were over-represented at antiwar rallies.

While these facts at least give lie to the claim of Pat Buchanan and many others that the war in Iraq was foisted on an unwitting American public by Israel and its "Amen corner" in the United States, they do not say much for Jewish concern with enslaved people.

Notable by their absence from every antiwar rally were any Iraqis. Organizers were concerned lest hearing about the suffering of the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein might deflate the moral superiority of the demonstrators as they held aloft their witty signs about President George W. Bush being the greatest threat to mankind since Hitler and ignored completely the more than one million dead attributable directly to Saddam.

Yet the Jews marching at the antiwar demonstrations were most likely to be those who demand that their Haggadot be au courant and who read the Torah, if they read it at all, as a brief for the Left wing of the Democratic Party.

IN TRUTH, it would be hard to find a better modern-day example to make the slavery of Egypt real for us than the affliction of the Iraqi people under Saddam.

In his commentary on the Haggada, the Vilna Gaon describes Pharaoh as having deprived Jews of all that made life worth living - normal family relations, children, and time of their own to breathe and reflect. And Saddam did the same. In the torture chambers found in every city and town, husbands were forced to watch their wives being gang-raped. Children were maimed and tortured in front of their parents to force them to confess to "crimes" against the state; others were stolen from their parents in infancy to be raised as automatons knowing only loyalty to Saddam.

Far from being ashamed of its sadism, the regime meticulously recorded its deeds for posterity. Just as the Nazis recorded the names of their victims and collected artifacts of the Jewish civilization they wished to destroy, so did Saddam's henchmen neatly preserve the bones of its child victims and photograph prisoners before their executions. Some of those taken away to the torture chambers were later returned to the streets - crippled, teeth wrenched out with pliers, sans fingernails, shells of their former selves - in order to advertise the cruelty of the regime.

Not every Iraqi was tortured or executed. But none escaped the terror - terror "so thick you could almost eat it," in the words of one British reporter.

NORMAL life did not exist in Saddam's Iraq. The constant terror penetrating to the bones touched one and all. The statement of one man pounding a statute of Saddam with a sledgehammer on liberation day could have spoken for a country: "I'm 49 years old, but I never lived a single day."

The most casual, everyday activities were unknown to Iraqis. Zainab al Suwaji, one of the nearly five million Iraqis to flee the country during Saddam's reign, described in the February 10 New Republic the exhilaration felt by her fellow rebels in 1991 during the brief, five-day interlude between the rebellion in the south at the first President Bush's urging and the crushing of that rebellion by Saddam's Republican Guards (while America stood by):

"It may not sound dramatic, but talking together was a completely new experience for us. For years we had lived in a society of informers, where nobody could be trusted. Now we were getting to know each other for the first time. The first night of the uprising was the first time I ever saw Iraqis reveal themselves to one another and talk openly about who we were and what had happened to us and our families."

Images from Iraq should doubly resonate with us as Jews. First, by aiding us in our efforts to appreciate the torture endured by our ancestors in Egypt and the miracle of their Redemption. And second, because the expansion of human freedom from fear is a cause for our own rejoicing. From our experience of slavery in Egypt we learned that slavery is inherently degrading. Without the ability to exercise our free will, we cannot fulfill our potential as human beings. The depravity into which we slid in Egypt was the natural result of our lack of freedom.

A Jewish servant who voluntarily extends the period of his servitude has his ear pierced as a sign of his degradation. The Talmud explains the choice of the ear: "The ear that heard My voice proclaim at Sinai, 'The Children of Israel are My servants' - i.e., they are My servants and not servants to servants - went and took a master over himself. Let his ear be pierced."

Freedom from tyranny, however, is only the first step of a process, as the widespread looting and lawlessness in Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the looting makes clear. As important as political freedom is, from the Jewish point of view it remains a means, not an end in itself, a necessary but not sufficient condition for the ultimate freedom.

The matza, a symbol of our redemption, hints at two aspects of freedom. Though it is called "poor bread," the poor man who eats it, explains the Maharal of Prague, is doubly free. At the first level, he is free because he is not a slave, his will subject to that of his master. But at another level he is free because he is not a rich man, the prisoner of his material possessions, entrapped in a world of physicality. The matza must be free of hametz, which represents the puffed-up quality of the physical world, the material side of man that impedes the soul's full expression.

Even as we celebrate the liberation of the Iraqis this Passover, let us not forget that for us, political freedom is but the first step to the ultimate freedom that comes with becoming His servants through the acceptance of the Torah.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and Israeli director of Am Echad. He can be reached by clicking here.


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© 2002, Jonathan Rosenblum Distributed by Am Eachad Resources<