Few look at freedom's positive side. At Pesach, it's precisely the "freedom to do" that we celebrate, recognizing that without drawing closer to the Divine, physical freedom is just an illusion.
The Pesach story, as told in the Torah passage read this Shabbat, begins with a positive commandment reflective of the Jewish people's dedication to the Almighty and their desire to free themselves from bondage. Each household slaughters a lamb, spreads its blood upon the entryway, and eats the roasted meat, as commanded by Moses. In this way, the Jews are spared from the Plague of the Firstborn, which leads Pharaoh to finally relent.
When the Jews left Egypt, they carried all of the country's riches, and yet, they took matzah, a humble bread. There was not enough time for the dough to rise. But a deeper explanation of matzah is rooted in the Haggadah's term for this central food: lachma anya, the "bread of affliction" or the "bread of the poor."
Although the Jewish people left Egypt in a position of strength, they fled. True power would have been demonstrated by a leisurely stroll. And although they left with all the riches of the ancient world, they carried the most humble of foods.
This paradox can be explained by a story told in the Midrash. When the Almighty contemplated redeeming the Jews from slavery and giving them the Torah, several angels protested. Why choose the Jews, they ask? The Egyptians are idol worshippers, and after years in captivity, the Jews are idol worshippers, the angels point out. The Almighty answers simply that the Jewish people's redeeming quality lies in the fact that He has chosen them.
The Jewish people's redemption — which we celebrate during the seder by considering ourselves as actively being redeemed — happened by no inherent virtue of our own. It happened solely because of Divine benevolence, like a parent accepting all of his children's faults and yet granting forgiveness anyway.
This is the freedom from constraint, granted from on high. And it offers a supremely powerful incentive to fulfill the Almighty's will by following the Torah. Herein lies the concept of positive freedom. The Haggadah is clear: The Jewish concept of redemption is directly connected to the goal of serving the Divine.
We can look at the going out of Egypt, whose name mitzrayim connotes limitation and constraint, as the first step in a long process of entering the Land of Israel, a state of using all of our abilities to bring supernal holiness down into the physical world.
The Haftorah portion read this week records the first Pesach celebrated under the leadership of Joshua; it comes just before conquering Jericho. Before conducting the Paschal sacrifice, Joshua circumcises all of the men, leading the Almighty to declare that the "reproach of Egypt" had finally been removed.
Some of the classic commentaries identify the Egyptian reproach as similar to the angelic claim that the Jewish people were undeserving of protection. By undergoing a mass circumcision, the Jewish people finally demonstrated their commitment to the Torah, making use of their freedom to do something holy.
In the same way, we have the power every Pesach to emerge from all that limits us and redirect our talents and abilities to making our corner of the world a holy place.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected] chabad.org.