Passover: The Slavery of Freedom

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Entries from a Passover Diary

 La Jolla, California, Passover 2004

A taste of Jewish America on the Passover hotel scene.

So here I am again, celebrating Passover, for the second year in a row, not in the spiritual wholesomeness of home, but in the comfort of a hotel. Last year we were in the Doubletree in Scottsdale, Arizona. This time 400 of us have gathered in the luxury of the Torrey Pines Hilton in La Jolla, California, a suburb of San Diego.

Is this the way Passover is meant to be celebrated? Passover was always about reducing self-indulgence. It was about freeing ourselves of the slavery of material life and experience spiritual freedom. Here, we indulge in material comfort – our beds are made, food all prepared, dishes washed, 24 hour tea room – as we recreate the exodus from all constraints and limitations (Egypt, Mitzrayim in Hebrew, is rooted in the word meaning constraints). The biggest complaint people have is that the steak is too rare or that there are only two ping-pong tables.

Is this leaving Egypt or entering it?

I am yet again, scholar in residence. Perhaps my role is to be the conscience of the group – to make everyone feel a bit guilty, between meals that is, about our comfort zones…

The irony doesn’t escape me that this too is a luxury that I am able to enjoy the amenities of hotel vacation while writing about its vices.

But then again, is this hotel comfort that much different than the comforts of home? After all, we live in a free country, enjoying unprecedented prosperity. Kosher for Passover products – that would have made our grandmothers tremble with shame – fill the grocery shelves. Today they even have Kosher for Passover pizza, for heaven’s sake.

Why, one could even make the argument that now we finally have the opportunity to celebrate true “cheirut” (freedom), which is the essence of Passover. Do we need only discomfort and crisis to feel the bitter “Egypt” of our lives?

Yes, it’s true that physical deprivation may make it easier to feel the need for freedom, but Judaism never preached asceticism and self-denial.

The challenge of our times is to not allow our comforts to numb our senses into complacency. Our exodus today is to free ourselves of the slavery that material freedom can impose upon us, and initiate passion and vivacity even when we have all our physical needs met – with equal intensity to the energy generated when we have to overcome adversity.

Our ancestors were forced to fight for their beliefs as they faced enemies all around them. Today we have to willingly elicit the fight from within against perhaps the greatest adversary of all: Apathy.

As one fellow told me at the Passover barbeque the other night: Why do we need Moshiach when we have all these comforts? Reminded me of the baalibatisher fellow who asked a Chassid: Why is the Rebbe crying so much when he blows Shofar – he has such a beautiful wife and family?…

Indeed, one can even say that the Passover hotel scene amplifies both the comfort and the challenge of our times – to overcome the obscene self-contentment of the unchallenged life.

Ok, now that I have justified this hotel phenomenon, I am sure that some guilty Jews can come up with more reasons to torture ourselves…

Jewish guilt – another important subject to address. So common is the concept that it’s become a cliché. But would you believe that guilt is antithetical to Judaism? Purposeless guilt that just demoralizes you is un-G-dly. Feelings of guilt and for that matter, anything demoralizing that does not motivate you to become better, is rooted in the evil inclination that seeks to break a person down. But that discussion is for another time.

Meet many interesting people. The crowd this year is more educated and of higher caliber than last. They actually welcome the opportunity to challenge and be challenged.

At the Seder I meet a woman who has come solely as a result of reading this weekly e-mail column! I think about the power of technology, another luxury of our times that can reach people in unprecedented ways when utilized properly.

Thursday, April 9 – Sea World

Visit the famous San Diego Sea World.

Very mixed feelings.

Must be over 20,000 people here today, each paying approximately $45. As I watch the powerful Shamu (killer whales) splash the lower 14 rows of spectators, and the elegant dolphins and sea lions jump through man-made hoops as tiny sea otters scurry about, I can’t help but wonder two things at once.

On one hand people are drawn to the astonishing beauty of the water world, the incredible wisdom in each creature – nothing less than witnessing a divine sight. At the same time, it is a spectacle of animals in captivity, many of which were bred in this cage. What do the animals really think about their own performance? As they keep feeding the big fish, you get a sense of the manipulation we see around us all day. “Here, I’ll throw you a bone, just keep jumping through my hoops.”

It doesn’t help to find out that the place is owned by Anheuser-Busch – yes the beer maker. Now I understand why they’re selling caps for Bud Light…

Don’t get me wrong. I am hardly a party pooper, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself at Seaworld. It was fascinating to walk down the dark caverns and see the ominous sharks snake through the shadowy waters. Or to watch the sleek seals swim seamlessly through the water like a knife in warm butter. No doubt this can inspire us to appreciate the world which G-d blessed us with. Many personal lessons can be derived from all these miracles of nature.

Yet, you can’t ignore the commercialization of it all. With all the watery beauty you get the seeping sense of other forces at work.

It may sound strange, but success can be harder to handle than failure. Comfort can be more difficult of a challenge than angst. Freedom and prosperity can be more enslaving than servitude.

Man, what a complex world we live in. Everything is intertwined – good with greed, altruism with acquisition, love and profit, sensitivity and coarseness, beauty and frivolity.

We have been blessed with freedoms that our ancestors would have considered Messianic. May we continue to be blessed with evermore comfort and prosperity.

But as the Alter Rebbe says: G-d blesses you with the material. You must transform matter into spirit.

This is the challenge of our times, the exodus from Mitzrayim in our generation: To free ourselves of the material comforts that bind us and see the material simply as a means to achieve the spiritual. To recognize that materialism can enslave us more than poverty can, you can be financially independent but live in the deepest psychological slavery.

Passover today is not to be deceived by superficial comforts and deceptive security. It is to discover that true freedom is only independence of the psyche, liberation of the spirit.

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