On Passover, we celebrate freedom. “Once we were slaves in Egypt,” we tell children at the table, “but now we are free.” As Rabbi Michael Lerner points out, “Egypt, mitzrayim in Hebrew, comes from the word tzar: the ‘narrow place,’ the constricted place.” Ours is a freedom not just from the strictures of forced labor, but from constricted thinking.
In that spirit we can celebrate both the freedom of Captain Phillips from the clutches of pirates, but the freedom of gays and lesbians in Iowa and Vermont to participate more fully in society. We can celebrate new knowledge, and pray for a day when we will be freed from the restrictions of a carbon-based energy economy, and from the cruelty of the global depression we are living through.
The freedoms we celebrate on Passover were not earned overnight. Moses and the Pharaoh had a long struggle, followed by 40 years of hardship in the desert. And having found their promised land after that long sojourn, the early Jews had other problems to overcome. Our freedom was restricted, and had to be defended, and expanded, over a course of thousands of years.
In the US, with our comparatively brief history, it’s easy to see our independence and declaration of freedom as one-time events and to forget that the Declaration of Independence we celebrate on July 4 was the beginning of a bloody process, and that it was independence only for a fraction of the nation: women, native peoples, and African slaves didn’t see much difference in their political power. Perhaps the compressed timeline of American independence explains why our Independence Day has been coopted to commercialism, while the longer history of the Passover Seder (and of anti-Semitic oppression) has been so consistently focused on the question of what freedom means, and the link between our freedom and our religious culture.
The freedoms we celebrate on Passover are greater this year than they were last year, and will be greater again next year. When we express the hope that we will celebrate next year in the land of Israel, that isn’t meant as a way to schedule our vacation, but as an expression of hope, that we will pass further from the narrow place we are in today, and into a land of milk and honey, a land of freedom for all. Egypt is not as restrictive as it once was, and Israel is not as free as it must be, and that leaves us all with a lot of work to do.
That is why we leave a seat at the table, and why we open the door and invite all who are hungry to enter. The stories we tell about the constricted life in Egypt are a metaphor: no evidence exists that Jews were slaves in Egypt, nor that vast numbers of people wandered the deserts of the Sinai for decades. The offer of food to all who hunger is genuine, but is as important metaphorically as it is literally. The Seder is about satisfying more than just physical hunger, it is about feeding a hunger for freedom.
These ideas are powerful ones, so it’s no surprise that the language of the Founding Fathers converges on them, as does the rhetoric of the teabaggers preparing to beset veterans memorials and creationist bars around the country.
The link to the teabaggers may seem like a thin reed, but bear in mind one historian’s explanation for the origin of a tale about thousands of Jews wandering the desert to escape slavery:
Maybe, suggests historian Baruch Halpern at Pennsylvania State University, the Exodus actually happened over and over. Everyone knew someone who’d gone to Egypt and come back complaining. “That’s basically what the story is about,” Halpern says. “God, you know how much taxes they make us pay in Egypt?” Maybe through years of retelling, he says, their grousing became an epic of enslavement and escape.
In a few thousand years, I imagine that the teabagging wingnuts will be long forgotten, or if they are remembered at all, it will be as a cautionary tale about the dangers of conservative demagoguery. But they are smart to hitch their chariot to these ideas. They are powerful ones, ideas capable of carrying the Jewish people through millenia of hardship, of leading slaves in America to their freedom, and of reminding gays and lesbians that freedom isn’t easy and it isn’t fast.
Somehow, I don’t think bitching about the difference between a top marginal tax rate of 35% and 39.6% is in the same epic category, but history will judge.