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Freedom: Not a Moment, but an Ongoing Process
Why aren't we at Sinai yet? When we celebrated Passover, we re-enacted our liberation from slavery. This freedom, however, was never intended to be freedom from, but rather freedom to. Not freedom from slavery, but rather freedom for a purpose, freedom to enter into a new relationship of responsibility and holiness. This new relationship would begin at Mount Sinai. And having left Egypt, why waste any time in getting there?
So again, why aren't we yet at Sinai? The answer? Because we are not ready for it. It turned out to be far easier to take the Jews out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of the Jews. Just because the Israelites were no longer forced to be slaves didn't mean that they knew how to be free.
Just because someone lends us a violin and says that we're free to play it doesn't mean that we can just pick it up and immediately start a sonata.
If we're no longer in Egypt, but we're also not at Sinai, then where are we? Then, as now, the answer is the same: We're on the way. Because of the difference between freedom from and freedom to, our calendar doesn't put Passover and Shavuot right after each other, as if one kind of freedom immediately and automatically leads to the other.
Instead, according to the Torah, we have to work for it. We are forced to undergo a journey that makes us ready for freedom. Before we can experience that true freedom, we must first undergo transformation.
That's why our calendar does not put Shavuot right after Passover. Instead, it separates them by seven weeks. But these seven weeks don't just serve to separate, but to connect - a connection described in detail in this week's Torah portion, Emor.
We are told to begin counting the days on the second night of Pesach, and to keep counting for seven weeks - for a total of 49 days. The 50th day is Shavuot.
This counting, called counting the omer, reminds us that freedom is not a moment, but an ongoing process. And this process is made up of many individual steps, the majority of which, we hope, are made in the right direction.
A month ago at our seders, we sang "Dayeinu" - "It would have been enough." This song troubles many people: Are we to believe that if God had taken us out of Egypt but allowed us to be killed by Pharaoh's army at the Sea of Reeds, it would have been enough?
Perhaps we should listen to "Dayeinu" in this way: Each step of liberation is enough, from the perspective of where we've come from to what we're leaving behind. Every step out of slavery is precious. We never know what the future holds, but we do know how far we've come.
"Dayeinu" reminds us that we can't get from here to there without effort. We need to take steps - 49 of them, to be exact.
Big Plans, Big Hopes
The mystics defined each and every one of these steps. There are, they taught, seven different attributes that we need to perfect during the counting of the omer. Each attribute is associated with one of the seven weeks; each attribute is associated with one of the seven days within each week.
Thus, we have seven times seven, 49 combinations of the attributes. On each day between Passover and Shavuot, we are to work on, to perfect, that particular combination of qualities. Each day represents progress. Each day can be a triumph.
Our goal is not to be free so that we can contentedly camp in the wilderness outside of Egypt.
No, we've got bigger plans, higher hopes, special dreams - we're on our way to Sinai!
In the Torah's telling of the story, God is responsible for bringing us out of Egypt.
In our retelling and ongoing completion of that story, it is we who are responsible for bringing the journey to its conclusion. We may not be there yet; still, freedom awaits us.
Rabbi Jeff Sultar is the senior rabbi at Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough.