Pesach is probably the most widely known of all of the Jewish holidays. And if we would ask people what is its central theme, almost everyone would give the same answer — freedom. After all, the central focus of the holiday is the journey of the Jewish people from slavery to freedom. And, in fact, the Kiddush we say at the beginning of the Seder calls Pesach “zman cheiruteinu — the time of our freedom.” That certainly seems to make a lot of sense.
However, this understanding of Pesach is not as simple as it first appears. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (6:2) declares — “There is no ben chorin (free person) other than one who is immersed in the study of the Torah.” There are two questions we could ask about this Mishnah:
- Isn’t the opposite true? Shouldn’t “immersion in the study of the Torah” actually limit our freedom? After all, the Torah is filled with lots of obligations and prohibitions.
If “immersion in the study of the Torah” is really an essential aspect of freedom, how could Pesachbe “zman cheiruteinu — the time of our freedom”? We got the Torah only 50 days afterPesach, during the holiday of Shavuot!
My Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, used to stress the importance of “defining our terms.” Let us, therefore, ask ourselves — what exactly is freedom? The simple understanding is that freedom is the ability to do whatever you want — no one making you do anything, or preventing you from doing anything.
There is, however, an obvious question we could ask on this. Even without anyone else either forcing you to do something, or stopping you from doing something, a person can still be quite limited. Take the example of a drug addict or an alcoholic. While no one else is coercing him do anything, he is still very constrained by his addiction.
Therefore, it appears that we need to modify our definition of freedom. Not only does freedom mean no one else constraining you, but rather no constraints at all — neither external nor internal. This is what my Rosh HaYeshiva used to call the ability to do what you really want, not what you feel like. The lack of external constraints alone is what we could call “license,” not freedom.
How can we get past our internal constraints, do what we really want to do, and be truly free?
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Rabbi Asher Resnick serves as a senior lecturer at Aish HaTorah’s Executive Learning Center, and is a senior training lecturer for Aish’s Rabbinical Ordination program. As a close student of Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, he developed a special expertise in addressing fundamental issues in Judaism, as well as in bringing classical texts to life. As a bereaved parent, Rabbi Resnick’s extensive writings on loss, suffering and trauma provide a sensitive Jewish perspective on coping with these fundamental life cycle issues. Olami & NLEResources.com is happy to highlight several essays over the coming months featured on his website JewishClarity.com.