Beyond the Four Questions
Surveys indicate that, for North American Jews, the two most frequently marked Jewish holiday rituals are the lighting of the Chanukah candles and the celebration of a Pesach Seder.
The appeal of the Chanukiah is clear as we create light on the darkest nights of the year. And besides, the only other ritual the holiday demands is the eating of delicious foods fried in oil. This is the kind of holiday that we can all get behind!
But Pesach is a different matter altogether. The endless cleaning and the super-detailed Seder rituals place the holiday on the opposite end of the easy-to-observe spectrum. And with all forms of leavening out of bounds, our Passover diets actually become more limited.
So what is the appeal of Pesach and the Seder? Certainly, the family togetherness the Seder brings makes it a special event. But I suspect that the holiday’s themes are important as well. For some, the idea that God will only let things get so bad before intervening and saving us is comforting. Yet, even in a non-theological sense, a holiday that celebrates freedom resonates with many of us. The plight of our ancestors making bricks in ancient Egypt definitely seems like something we’d all want to avoid, and we all have a desire for freedom, whatever that looks like for each individual.
We’ve been hearing a lot about freedom recently. The Ukranians’ willingness to sacrifice so much to remain politically free is truly inspiring. Here in Canada, First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples endured a type of bondage in residential schools, and their demand to receive acknowledgement of, and restitution for, their suffering represents a drive toward a much-deserved, if more metaphorical, freedom from a history of discrimination and repression.
When it comes to the COVID pandemic, the concept of freedom as an absolute good becomes less clear and raises many questions. What does freedom mean when it comes to vaccinations and masks and limits on gatherings? What are the appropriate boundaries of individual freedom? When does the freedom of a society from disease and anxiety trump the individual’s rights to freedom about their own bodies? And what is the right balance when there are conflicts between different forms of freedom
While our tradition cannot answer specific questions about our pandemic dilemmas, it does have something to say about freedom and its appropriate parameters. After Pesach, we count out the seven-week Omer period that leads up to the holiday of Shavu’ot — literally, “weeks.” One might expect the time following the holiday that marks freedom from slavery to be celebratory, but this is not the case. Traditionally, the Omer entails restrictions that are similar to those observed during mourning periods: no weddings or similar celebrations; no listening to instrumental music; no cutting of hair or shaving.
How is it that the Jewish calendar tells us that there is something sad or problematic about freedom? The answer seems to lie in Pesach’s relationship with the Shavu’ot holiday that follows it. Beyond its agricultural significance, Shavu’ot marks the giving of the Torah with its instructions on how to live ethically as individuals and as a society. The mourning and restrictions of the Omer period end when we celebrate our acceptance of law and social justice. Unfettered freedom is dangerous, the calendar seems to tell us. But within the context of a moral framework, it is something to be celebrated.
Bialik’s students, like all children, gradually become more independent — enjoy more freedom from adult supervision — as they grow older and mature. In partnership with our parents, our goal as a school is to match that burgeoning freedom, step-for-step, with our students’ development of their ethical selves. From the first days of JK, we talk with the children about how to treat one another and create a warm, caring community. As the children grow, we introduce them to the values — personal, communal, academic, Jewish and secular — that help to nurture the Mensches we all want them to become.
It is a complicated path we humans trace, from childhood to adulthood, from utter dependence on our parents and caregivers to individual freedom, and from babies focused only on our most basic physical needs to fully grown ethical beings. Our graduates have certainly not reached the culmination of this process, but Bialik sets them on the right path, with strong Jewish identities and the requisite critical-thinking skills to make good use of their growing freedom.
The celebration of Pesach gives us all the perfect opportunity to focus our appreciation on our freedom in all its complexities as well as the ethical framework our Jewish tradition provides.
Wishing each and every one of you health and a wonderful Pesach with your loved ones.