It’s fashionable to look at Passover as a universal idea. This makes sense; after all, how much more universal can you get than the theme of human freedom? Also, it’s a lot easier these days to be outer-directed and feel outrage at injustice. Thanks to the Internet, millions can now watch YouTube clips of people being oppressed in the Sudan or demonstrating in the Middle East.
So, when Passover arrives, it’s not surprising that many of us would associate this powerful Jewish holiday with tikkun olam — with the global struggle for justice and freedom.
But there’s another dimension to freedom that has little to do with what’s happening in Africa and everything to do with what’s happening inside each one of us. This is a deeply personal and intimate view of freedom, and Passover is an ideal time to try to connect with it.
I got an unexpected lesson on this subject the other day when I asked my friend Rabbi Yoel Glick, a teacher of “spiritual wisdom” who was visiting from his home in the south of France, to share some thoughts on Passover.
“Our personal journey of freedom is reflected in the four names we use for the festival of Pesach,” Glick told me over coffee. “Each name represents a different step in this journey.”
In other words, each step is like a “mini seder” that we must experience before moving on to the next step. As Glick went on, I thought: “This is so Jewish. As soon as you think you’ve accomplished something, a little voice tells you: ‘Don’t get too excited — you’re not done yet.’ ”
The first name for Pesach — Chag HaHerut (the festival of freedom) — represents the first, basic step of our liberation, when we are released from physical bondage. It’s not a coincidence that one of the seder rituals at this stage is to break off a small piece of matzah (yachatz) and put away the larger one. This is a sign, according to Glick, that there’s still a lot more work to be done.
What is that work? It is to realize that the freedom to do anything is not the same thing as the freedom to do the right thing.
This is the second level of freedom, as symbolized by the second name of the holiday — Chag HaPesach (the festival of Passover) — which features, among other things, the sacrifice of the Pascal lamb.
Here, we are called upon to sacrifice our animal natures for the sake of our higher selves. Just as Moses sacrificed the material benefits of being a prince for the spiritual benefits of doing God’s work, we are challenged to rise above our animal desires — such as unbridled hedonism — and use our newfound freedom for a higher purpose.
By now, you’re probably thinking: “Hey, this is a pretty high level. What else can God want from us?” Well, like I said, with Judaism there’s always something.
As Glick explained it, once we have managed to discipline our animal bodies and to make the right choices, we slowly realize there is yet another bondage that has a hold on us — the bondage of the mind.
We are enslaved to prejudice, dogma and ideology.
So, the third step in our journey to personal liberation, which is symbolized by the third name of Pesach — Chag HaMatzot (the festival of unleavened bread) — is to free ourselves from dogmatic thinking.
That’s why this step is symbolized by the matzah, the flat bread that is made without yeast and is not allowed to rise. Yeast represents the ego, and the unleavened matzah represents the freedom of an open and expansive mind.
But hold on, we’re not out of the woods yet. There’s still the fourth name for Pesach — Chag HaAviv, the festival of spring — which ushers in the final level of personal liberation.
This final step is when we are liberated from our most fundamental fears, such as the fear of old age, sickness and death.
Glick calls it “joining the mind of God,” which represents the eternal and the timeless. We no longer fear the end because, at this level of spiritual consciousness, there is no end, only constant renewal. As we recite the final psalms of Hallel, we are reminded that there’s also no end to God’s love, and we experience a state of “never- ending spring” when every living thing is part of one single great consciousness.
Now, if you’re wondering how you can experience all this spirituality while the wine is flowing, the kids are yelling and the guests are arguing over whether Obama is good for the Jews, here’s some good news: After the seder, you still have 49 days to go. According to the kabbalah, we are to use the 49 days between Passover and the festival of Shavuot — the days of the counting of the Omer — to reach higher and higher levels of spiritual perfection.
And for those of us who preach tikkun olam, I have no doubt that this spiritual process includes the obligation to help with the liberation of others.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being Jewish, it’s that no matter how spiritually elevated we get or how many good deeds we’ve done or how much we’ve learned or how many people we’ve helped ... we’re never done.
And that’s a pretty universal idea.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.