The Spanish government recently announced that it will offer instant citizenship to any Jew of Spanish descent whose ancestors were expelled in 1492. A few months ago, a senior Egyptian official invited all the Jews who were expelled by Nasser to return to the country. What’s our reaction to these munificent gestures? Suddenly we are overcome by warm fuzzy feelings of nostalgia for our ancestral countries. The distant, but somehow familiar memories of culture, food and life flow through our veins as we yearn to return to the exotic places that we once called home.
On Passover, we celebrate our freedom from Egypt. In the middle of the night, Pharaoh drove the Israelites out of the land, barely allowing us enough time to make sandwiches for the trip. Not that we were sad to see the last of Egypt – we had suffered miserably for 210 years. But being physically expelled from the land had a curious effect on the mindset of the people. At the end of the day, it was not our choice. In fact, our Sages tell us that many people were so entrenched in Egyptian culture that they refused to leave and perished during the plague of darkness.
But even those who left with the Exodus of the Israelites could not let go. “We remember the fish that we would eat freely in Egypt; the cucumbers and the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic,” the people complained to Moses (Numbers 11:5). They were eating manna from heaven and they still pined for life in Egypt! And as Rashi points out, they weren’t just talking about physical food – they missed the Egyptian culture.
Why do we gather around the seder table each year and recall our flight to freedom? Because Exodus is not a one-time affair. Exodus is a process with which we are constantly engaged. We are all products of our genetic and environmental DNA – our nature and nurture, some of it positive, some of it negative. Everybody has ‘hang-ups’ or bonds of slavery from which they need to break free. Passover is our annual reminder that it is okay to let go, to move on, to embrace our ‘new selves’.
And this explains why somehow, despite our quality of life, free from all religious and physical persecution, living in an age of freedom that our forebears could only have dreamed of, we still yearn for life ‘in der Heim’, whether that means Ashkenazic Europe or Sefardic Spain or Mizrachi Egypt. Truth is, life wasn’t that great – in the Middle Ages, we were expelled from and invited back to France and England a number of times. And each time we fell for it, because we just couldn’t let go.
On Passover, we are instructed to remind ourselves that ‘this year we are free’, life is better than ever and one day we will be completely freed of the shackles of our external and internal taskmasters. Let us embrace the freedoms we have, without looking back. Let us strive for even greater freedoms as we escape our personal bonds. And let us pray for the ultimate freedom – next year in Jerusalem.