April 11th, 2017

Passover: a celebration of freedom

[NOTE: This is a slightly edited repeat of a previous post.]

Monday evening was the beginning of the Jewish holiday Passover.

In recent years whenever I’ve attended a Seder, I’ve been impressed by the fact that Passover is a religious holiday dedicated to an idea that’s not really primarily religious: freedom. Yes, it’s about a particular historical (or perhaps legendary) event: the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. But the Seder ceremony makes clear that, important though that specific event may be, freedom itself is also being celebrated.

Offhand, I can’t think of another religious holiday that takes the trouble to celebrate freedom. Nations certainly do: there’s our own Fourth of July, France’s Bastille Day, and various other independence days around the world. But these are secular holidays rather than religious ones.

For those who’ve never been to a Seder ceremony, I suggest attending one (and these days it’s easier, since they are usually a lot shorter and more varied than in the past). A Seder is an amazing experience, a sort of dramatic acting out complete with symbols and lots of audience participation. Part of its power is that events aren’t placed totally in the past tense and regarded as ancient and distant occurrences; rather, the participants are specifically instructed to act as though it is they themselves who were slaves in Egypt, and they themselves who were given the gift of freedom, saying:

“This year we are slaves; next year we will be free people…”

Passover acknowledges that freedom (and liberty, not exactly the same thing but related) is an exceedingly important human desire and need. That same idea is present in the Declaration of Independence (which, interestingly enough, also cites the Creator):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

It is ironic, of course, that when that Declaration was written, slavery was allowed in the United States. That was rectified, but only after great struggle, which goes to show how wide the gap often is between rhetoric and reality, and how difficult freedom is to achieve. And it comes as no surprise, either, that the Passover story appealed to slaves in America when they heard about it; witness the lyrics of “Let My People Go.”

Yes, the path to freedom is far from easy, and there are always those who would like to take it away. Sometimes an election merely means “one person, one vote, one time,” if human and civil rights are not protected by a constitution that guarantees them, and by a populace dedicated to defending them at almost all costs. Wars of liberation only give an opportunity for liberty, they do not guarantee it, and what we’ve observed in recent years has been the difficult and sometimes failed task of attempting to secure it in a place with no such tradition, and with neighbors dedicated to its obliteration.

We’ve also seen threats to liberty in our own country, despite its long tradition of liberty and the importance Americans used to place on it. I fear those days may be over.

Sometimes those who are against liberty are religious, like the mullahs. Sometimes they are secular, like the Communists. Sometimes they are cynical and power-mad; sometimes they are idealists who don’t realize that human beings were not made to conform to their rigid notions of the perfect world, and that attempts to force them to do so seem to inevitably end in horrific tyranny, and that this is no coincidence.

As one of my favorite authors Kundera wrote, in his Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

…human beings have always aspired to an idyll, a garden where nightingales sing, a realm of har­mony where the world does not rise up as a stranger against man nor man against other men, where the world and all its people are molded from a single stock and the fire lighting up the heavens is the fire burning in the hearts of men, where every man is a note in a magnificent Bach fugue and anyone who refuses his note is a mere black dot, useless and meaningless, easily caught and squashed between the fingers like an insect.”

Note the seamless progression from lyricism to violence: no matter if it begins in idealistic dreams of an idyll, the relinquishment of freedom to further that dream will end with humans being crushed like insects.

History has borne that out, I’m afraid. That’s one of the reasons the people of Eastern Europe have been more inclined to ally themselves recently with the US than those of Western Europe have—the former have only recently come out from under the Soviet yoke of being regarded as those small black and meaningless dots in the huge Communist “idyll.”

Dostoevsky did a great deal of thinking about freedom as well. In his cryptic and mysterious Grand Inquisitor, a lengthy chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, he imagined a Second Coming. But this is a Second Coming in which the Grand Inquisitor rejects what Dostoevsky sees as Jesus’s message of freedom:

Oh, never, never can [people] feed themselves without us [the Inquisitors and controllers]! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, “Make us your slaves, but feed us.” They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man?

Freedom vs. bread is a false dichotomy. Dostoevsky was writing before the Soviets came to power, but now we have learned that lack of freedom, and a “planned” economy, is certainly no guarantee of bread (just ask the Ukrainians).

Is freedom a “basic need,” then? Ask, also, the Vietnamese “boat people.” And then ask them what they think of John Kerry’s assertion, during his 1971 Senate testimony, that they didn’t care what sort of government they had as long as their other “basic needs” were met:

We found most people didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart…

So that when we in fact state, let us say, that we will have a ceasefire or have a coalition government, most of the 2 million men you often hear quoted under arms, most of whom are regional popular reconnaissance forces, which is to say militia, and a very poor militia at that, will simply lay down their arms, if they haven’t done so already, and not fight. And I think you will find they will respond to whatever government evolves which answers their needs, and those needs quite simply are to be fed, to bury their dead in plots where their ancestors lived, to be allowed to extend their culture, to try and exist as human beings. And I think that is what will happen…

I think that politically, historically, the one thing that people try to do, that society is structured on as a whole, is an attempt to satisfy their felt needs, and you can satisfy those needs with almost any kind of political structure, giving it one name or the other. In this name it is democratic; in others it is communism; in others it is benevolent dictatorship. As long as those needs are satisfied, that structure will exist.

I beg to differ. I think there’s another very basic need, one that perhaps can only really be appreciated when it is lost: liberty.

Happy Passover!

19 Responses to “Passover: a celebration of freedom”

  1. Vanderleun Says:

    Last year I celebrated Passover in Paradise (Soon to be a major motion picture with that title.) Celebrated it with a one of my oldest and dearest friends. We had, I recall, a bit of a time getting everything we needed for Passover in Paradise but we prevailed.

    It was a great Passover marked by the endless waiting for the real food to arrive after the bitter herbs….

  2. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “I think there’s another very basic need, one that perhaps can only really be appreciated when it is lost: liberty.”

    I once believed liberty or the desire for self-determination to be universal as well and that is true for some percentage of people. But some people want to be told what to do.

    I suspect the more inclined someone is to be group oriented, the less important liberty is to them with the caveat that few enjoy being abused. So perhaps they want a benevolent mommy and daddy figure.

    I reached that conclusion after seeing the neocon failure to implant democracy into the M.E.

    An analogy that IMO does a fair job of explaining the human spectrum is presented by the old John Ford/John Wayne calvary movies like “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”. As the regiment leaves the fort, Wayne is the leader, his lieutenants are his middle managers, the NCO’s the shop supervisors and the privates and corporals the skilled workforce. The regiment’s scouts are the individuals who most value liberty, necessarily self-reliant but part of the mini-society. As long as the troops retain confidence in their leadership, they’re content to have that leadership make the decisions with liberty essentially absent.

    BTW, I think that a high percentage of conservative/libertarian types are ‘scouts’. They resonate to Groucho Marx’s wonderful maxim; when asked what clubs and organizations he belonged to, he opined that he would never join any group whose standards were so low as to wish him to be a member… and if that doesn’t bring an understanding smile to your face, then you are not a scout type.

  3. Big Maq Says:

    “Freedom vs. bread is a false dichotomy. Dostoevsky was writing before the Soviets came to power, but now we have learned that lack of freedom, and a “planned” economy, is certainly no guarantee of bread (just ask the Ukrainians).” – Neo

    Hits close to home.

    Just recently made acquaintance with a man who left Ukraine shortly after the wall fell.

    When I asked what was his first impression of the west / US, he named the local grocery chain.

    He said that back in the Ukraine you had a store, just for bread, one for cheese, one for meat, etc.

    He explained that our local grocery store offered an incredible variety while the one in his home city provided one or two types.

    As for meat, it was usually gone by the time they arrived to purchase, as the employees stole it and sold it privately. That’s how people survived.

    Not far from the description of Cuba today, here…

    And is a near identical story for people I’ve met who escaped (when that was the only way out of) countries like Poland, Russia, etc..

  4. Wooly Bully Says:

    Comments don’t seem to work for me.

  5. Wooly Bully Says:

    I take that back, though I do appear to be commenting too quickly.

  6. mollyNH Says:

    Happy passover to all & let freedom reign, as long as possible.

  7. Big Maq Says:

    “Is freedom a “basic need, then?” – Neo

    Is it a “need”, or is it our “nature”?

    We have a contrived system to put some limits on it, and we hope it can withstand the temptation of many (good or bad intentioned, individually or as a majority) to abuse the power we vested in that system.

    “We’ve also seen threats to liberty in our own country, despite its long tradition of liberty and the importance Americans used to place on it. I fear those days may be over.”

    Scalia used to say “It’s the structure, stupid!”

    So long as we don’t want to respect our original structure, and we want shortcuts to get our way, your fears will pan out, as that structure continues to erode.

    However, I don’t think it inevitable.

    We see the threat on the left, but, right now, it just seems that many on “our” side are confused as to what “ideas” it is we should be “arguing” for.

    Some want MORE government (in the name of their favorite issue), yet argue for more freedom.

    Cannot have it both ways.

    And, the power to do the MORE that they advocate, is the very same power that can be used by the left (or anyone else for their own benefit).

    We have to realize that the more we ask the government to do, the more power we place in the hands of others.

    We have to realize that the more we weaken the rules to make it easier to “get things done”, the easier it is for someone without our interests in mind to “get their will”.

    It is not inevitable, but we’ve got to be thinking more along these lines, and seek to persuade others of the same, so that we can elect representative who will oblige us on this.

  8. Tuvea Says:

    So you missed Josh Mintz’s piece at Haaretz.com

    He says there is no evidence what so ever that Jews were ever enslaved in Egypt. The logical inference is, then, that the whole Passover thing is a lie.

    No real surprise as it comes from Haaretz. As extreme Left as can be.

  9. Ann Says:


    A piece in Haaretz from last year to counter today’s piece: Were Hebrews Ever Slaves in Ancient Egypt? Yes

  10. Geoffrey Britain Says:


    If the Jews were never enslaved in Egypt, then Moses could never have led them out of bondage. No miraculous plagues, no parting of the red sea, no burning bush that is not consumed by the fire on Mt. Sinai and NO Ten Commandments… thus no justification for Isreal.

    It’s about invalidating Judaism and by default, Christianity too.

  11. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Big Maq,

    Years ago a friend, whose wife is Eastern European and whose adopted daughter is from Romania told me of putting up a visitor from a former communist nation, right after the Soviet Union fell. My friend told of exactly the same reaction when he brought along his visitor on a quick trip to the local grocery store. He said the man was stunned at the variety and abundance and disbelieving of his own eyes, thinking it a trick, until assured that it was the norm in the West. The clincher was when my friend volunteered to take him around to see as many grocery stores in the area as he might wish until he’d confirmed it to his own satisfaction.

    Venezuela is the most recent proof of socialism’s bankruptcy but they cannot let go of their delusions.

  12. T Says:


    A Gute Pesach to you and all.

  13. Big Maq Says:

    @GB – one of my other early coworkers was Russian and told me all kinds of stories.

    HIS first impression was “color!”.

    He made his way into Italy, and was amazed at the signage, the clothing, the cars, the hair, etc..

    We take for granted these things, and involve ourselves with the trivialities of life (aka First World Problems) that few of us can relate, nor imagine.

    Incidentally, for a different flavor, another I met from Brazil says “order” is their first impression. That is, folks actually stand in a line, drive between the lines, respect the traffic lights, etc..

    Definitely several steps ahead of the Iron Curtain folks, but clearly reflects a social disorder, a lack of trust to be treated “fairly”.

    Yes, Venezuela is a self-inflicted tragedy.

  14. Frog Says:

    It is remarkable how truly swinish and immoral John Eff Kerrry is and has been, and how he has been politically promoted by the Good (sarc off) People of Massachusetts.

  15. mollyNH Says:

    I have heard the current opinion out there that there is no historical evidence link ing the Jews to an actual enslavement in Egypt, and my response is so what? It s the *story* that speaks to the heart of people, same thing with those who deny Christ’s resurrection, it is intended to inspire on a transcendent level. To raise us above a merely human level and show us through much suffering what we are capable of. They are great lessons with triumphant endings. We need this and not an ending like 1984.

  16. Big Maq Says:

    “But some people want to be told what to do.” – GB

    How about this angle?….

    Humanity seems very much heavily weighted toward the risk-averse.

    People are uncomfortable / fearful taking risks (real and perceived).

    Some have more tolerance than others.

    Some situations motivate them more than others to take risks, or, opposite, to step back.

    Taking risks is also harder / more involved, and carries responsibilities if the results turn south.

    Is it that people “want” to be told what to do, or is it that they DON’T WANT to “stick out their necks”?

    This may LOOK very much like “wanting to be told”, but actually isn’t.

    They are just agreeable to “it”, whatever “it” is at the time.

    This, of course, is a simplification of something much more complex going on with each person, with multiples of variables, influences, and biographies that impact each.

    Don’t know if there is an existing theory on this, so don’t know if there is any proper terminology to describe it better.

    Anyway, food for thought.

  17. J.J. Says:

    G.B.: “This, of course, is a simplification of something much more complex going on with each person, with multiples of variables, influences, and biographies that impact each.
    Don’t know if there is an existing theory on this, so don’t know if there is any proper terminology to describe it better.”

    Steven Pinker’s book, “The Blank Slate: The modern Denial of Human Nature,” has quite a lot to say about this. He identifies five personality traits that are basic to all humans.
    For example: extroverted – shy. All of us lie somewhere on the line between being very extroverted and extremely shy. He believes these are genetic inheritances and can be changed somewhat by parental influence/education, but that a shy person can never become an extrovert.

    Another example: aggressive – passive.
    Aggression can be channeled either for good or ill, but an aggressive person will never become passive.
    The other three traits are:
    open minded – closed minded
    conscientious – careless
    neurotic – emotionally stable

    He might not be totally correct, but when you think about human behavior, it appears that much of it is inherited and largely unchangeable/unmodifiable.

  18. mollyNH Says:

    Interesting, I can tell you from experience that a pre menopausal woman can go from passive to aggressive, once that estrogen gets knock ed back lol although you actually referred to an aggressive person becoming passive.
    Another trait humans have is Tribalism, for better or worse we feel more comfortable with those who are most similar. I believe this arose as a defense mechanism, to be wary of the stranger. It’s not racism as tribes of the same race can consider *others* reason for concern. And indeed we can be harmed, murdered, robbed, beaten by those we trusted, but I think something innate has to be overcome to finally have a confident acceptance of someone who is in look and manner unfamiliar. ( just my 2 cents)x

  19. Big Maq Says:

    JJ and mollyNH – great points, thanks!

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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