If you were to take a bird’s eye view of the entire Seder, you might notice that it straddles two diametrically opposed themes: slavery and freedom.
We have customs and food items that are symbolic of our hardship as slaves in Egypt and at the same time we act as if we are kings and queens.
Sometimes we even mix these two themes together in the same ritual. For instance; we eat maror (bitter herbs) to remember the bitterness of slavery, but we also dip it in charoset, and dipping food is the manner of rich folks! Perhaps the greatest example of this is the centerpiece of the whole seder experience - the matzah. On the one hand, matzah is a “poor man’s food” (lechem oni), the “bread of our affliction.” On the other hand, it is representative of our freedom from bondage. We even eat it while leaning to the side… another sign of royalty!
Even in the text of the Haggadah, this tension, or dialectic, between these two themes is interwoven in a contradictory manner, sometimes within the same paragraph!
For example, in perhaps the highlight of the Seder, the singing of the Mah Nishtana, slavery and freedom are both in the spotlight. The first two questions are about matzah and maror; items representing slavery, whereas the third and fourth questions are about dipping and leaning, which represent freedom and royalty.
In the opening of the Maggid section, we say the “Hah lachma Anya” paragraph, which includes the line “Hashata Avdei” - this year we are slaves. However, on the very next page of the Haggadah we sing “Avadim hayinu”, we were slaves!
And finally, to drive this point home, in a Talmudic debate regarding leaning while drinking the four cups of wine it states:
אדרבה תרי כסי בתראי בעו הסיבה, ההיא שעתא דקא הויא חירות, תרי כסי קמאי לא בעו הסיבה דאכתי עבדים היינו קאמר
On the contrary, the last two cups require reclining, as it is at that time that there is freedom. However, the first two cups do not require reclining, as one still says: We were slaves.
(Talmud Bavli Pesachim 108a)
Here the Talmud crystallizes the dichotomous nature of the Seder experience. Out of the four cups of wine, the first and second are when “we were slaves” and don’t require leaning, and the third and fourth cups are “at the time of freedom” and do require leaning.
So, which is it?
How are we supposed to feel on the night of Pesach?
Are we still slaves, or are we free men and women?
To answer this question, I’d like to propose that the Seder experience is not about being free, but rather becoming free.
The Jewish people had been slaves in Egypt for 210 years, and then in an instant God redeemed them and released them from bondage. However, it is naive at best, and dangerous at worst, to believe that a people who had experienced generations of hardship and oppression could suddenly transform into royal kings and queens in one night.
The Seder represents a taste of freedom.
The beginning of the process...
Taking that first step…
Shifting the focus…
But the process of becoming free and leaving the slavery mentality behind would be a long, arduous journey.
In the world of self-help, people often experience a eureka moment. Perhaps you experienced this as well. Maybe you were inspired by a memorable lesson from your favorite teacher in school, or after a significant life event or crisis. Maybe being stuck at home during the corona upheaval has motivated you to make some meaningful changes. Inspiration can happen while reading a powerful book or while watching an inspirational video (maybe even my #mentalhealthmonday live interview with Project Proactive)...
At some point in most people’s lives, they ‘wake up’ and feel incredibly motivated to make a major lifestyle change.
And then what?
As we all know too well, those feelings of inspiration fade quickly.
You walk out of the room where you heard the most inspiring lecture and you vow to be a better person. But then you go home, and life goes on. Old habits die hard. Just take a look at how crowded gyms are in January compared to in February.
Real behavioral change requires much more than inspiration.
That moment could be the catalyst, the spark that ignites you and stirs something inside. We should harness those moments and use them as opportunities to springboard our self-growth.
But the next step of the process requires a calculated and meticulous plan, with clear goals, objectives and monitoring. It involves making a schedule, getting the materials you need, planning a course of action and monitoring your progress. It requires consistency, determination and sustained effort, even well after the moment of inspiration and positive feelings have passed.
This, I believe, is the lesson of the Pesach Seder. Many modern Jewish thinkers have interpreted the theme of slavery as a metaphor for addictions or other behaviors we are ‘slaves’ to. The possessions that we must have, the habits that are harmful but yet seem to control us.
On the first night of Pesach we are still slaves. We can’t undo 210 years of a certain lifestyle in an instant.
The Seder is the inspirational moment - it is the eureka experience.
That is why we are always reminding ourselves of it in our prayers by reciting “zecher le’yetziat mitzrayim - in memory of the exodus from Egypt”. We want to constantly remember that moment when we felt so motivated to change for the better. (And we know that neural pathways are formed, reinforced and made stronger through repetition – this is the miracle of neuroplasticity – that our sages knew well before it was discovered in this era).
We know that the true freedom comes 50 days later, on the holiday of Shavuot.
Shavuot is the holiday of Matan Torah - the giving of the Torah.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot says:
שאין לך בן חורין אלא מי שעוסק בתלמוד תורה
The only free person is one who is involved in studying Torah (6:2).
The Torah is a guidebook to living our best life.
It is meant to help us harness our potential and help make the world a better place. Only once we are ‘free’ from our destructive habits and maladaptive personality traits can we truly call ourselves free men and women.
The link between Pesach and Shavuot is the mitzvah of Sefirat Ha’Omer - counting the omer. From the second night of Pesach, we count 49 days, in ascending order, without missing a day. Sefirat Ha’Omer can be thought of as a 49-step program. It contains all the necessary elements: we define our goals, make a timeline, map out a path, and monitor our progress. It requires commitment, consistency and determination. We take the feelings of inspiration from the taste of freedom on the first night of Pesach, and we turn it into a plan of action.
If we can connect Pesach to Shavuot, if we can stay committed for the long haul and stay motivated throughout the process, then we can truly experience freedom!