Rabbi Barry Leff Digest
Number 34 Date 040803
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From: "Rabbi Barry Leff" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Message: 33 The Meaning of Passover
Date: Mon, 7 Apr 2003 12:27:13 -0700
From: "Rabbi Barry Leff" <email@example.com>
Subject: The Meaning of Passover
A copy of my Passover Guide can be found on the Beth Tikvah website,
A link to it is on the home page, just scroll down toward the bottom of
Chag Sameach, Rabbi Leff
The Meaning of Passover
On the night of April 16, if previous years are any guide, something
truly miraculous will happen. Something like 93% of all Jews in North
America will find their way to a Seder, to celebrate Passover together
with other Jews. Religious Jews, secular Jews, Reform, Conservative,
Orthodox Jews, Jews who are in shul every week, Jews who never go to
shul, but for at least one night almost all of us will be doing the same
thing: recalling the Exodus from Egypt.
Why? What makes Passover so important? What is the essential message
When I ask people “what’s the message of Passover” the usual response is
“Freedom.” We were slaves, now we are free. If that’s all there were
to it, however, Passover would not have lasted as a holiday for
millenia. How many African Americans celebrate Juneteenth, the
emancipation of slaves in America?
Passover is much more about faith, and about some of our fundamental
beliefs as Jews. We are told by the Mishnah that every generation is
obligated to view themselves as if they, personally, were brought out
from Egypt. We are COMMANDED to tell the story in the first person, as
a story that is our story, today, in this generation. Why?
This is a time for us to connect with God. In the Shema we recite the
verse “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt
in order to be your God.” The redemption from Egypt was not just so we
could be free from oppression—it was so we would be free to serve God.
Faith makes it much easier to be a loyal servant of God.
The most effective path toward belief is direct experience. Having
lived in Israel, my faith in the importance and centrality of Israel to
the Jewish people is incomparably greater than it was before I lived in
Israel. I don’t think there is any number of books I could have read
which would have brought me to the same level of understanding as the
This is why it is so important to bring our seders to life. No
disrespect to my grandfather, but when I was a kid growing up our seders
consisted of speed reading the Maxwell House haggadah so we could get to
the food. It was mostly in Hebrew, so I had no idea what was going on.
I can’t say the experience did much for my connection with the true
meaning of Pesach, although they were certainly pleasant enough family
experiences and the food was great.
Strengthening faith, however, is only one part of the Passover message.
The next question is to what end do we strengthen our faith in God?
There are two key elements in the Passover experience, on the one hand
to reinforce our Jewishness, and on the other hand to remind us of our
universalistic values that transcend nationalism.
Why is the Exodus story so central to Judaism? Why do we mention it
several times a day in our prayers? Why does the Torah say, quoted in
the Shema, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of
Egypt” instead of “I am the Lord your God who made you?” Wouldn’t it be
more compelling to focus on God as Creator as a reason to obey the
The Exodus story is so central because it celebrates the formation of
the Jewish people. Before the Exodus and giving of the Torah on Mt.
Sinai there really wasn’t a “Jewish people.” There were 12 tribes
descended from Abraham, but it wasn’t until we left Egypt and received
the Torah that we really became the Jewish people. This celebration of
our Jewishness, and our special relationship with God, is no doubt part
of what has kept Passover alive as a holiday for so many Jews with
little other connection with Judaism. It’s a way to acknowledge who we
are, no matter how far we may have strayed.
The Exodus story celebrates our “choseness,” our uniqueness, but that’s
not the reason it is mentioned so often in our daily liturgy. One of
the most common recurring phrases in the Torah is “because you were
strangers in Egypt.” We are admonished not to wrong the stranger,
because we were strangers in Egypt. We celebrate our uniqueness,
through the Exodus story, but it is for the purpose of carrying a
universal message: to be kind to the “other.” We know what it is like
to be “other” and we are told, over and over again (36 times) to
remember that WE were slaves in Egypt.
Celebrating freedom certainly is part of the Passover story, but it’s
not simply a “freedom from”—freedom from oppression, freedom from living
in fear—but more than that, it is “freedom to”—freedom to serve God.
When most of us say “freedom” we think of freedom from: freedom from
being told what to do, freedom to go where you want to go, do what you
want to do. Freedom is associated with hedonism. That kind of freedom,
however, is what Janis Joplin immortalized in song: “freedom’s just
another word for nothin’ left to lose.” It’s a very empty freedom.
That kind of empty freedom pales very quickly. After the miracle at the
Red Sea, and succeeding in getting away from the Egyptians, what’s the
first thing our ancestors did? Complain about how terrible it was
living out in the desert, begging to go back to the flesh pots of Egypt.
Many of us with misspent youths can testify to how quickly the novelty
of “freedom from” can wear out.
A certain amount of “freedom from” is a necessary precondition to
“freedom to.” Our ancestors needed to be free of the demands of the
Egyptians before they could be free to serve God. Today, each one of us
needs to be free from whatever our Egypt is to be able to serve God,
family, and the Jewish people. For most of us, the trick is learning to
say “dayeinu,” enough. As long as you put making money or advancing
your career ahead of making time for the things that you would
undoubtedly claim are more important, you are a slave. The handcuffs
may be golden, but you’re not free. True freedom means being able to
say “dayeinu,” I have enough. As it says in Pirkei Avot, “who is wise?
The one who is content with his lot.”
Once we’ve achieved an element of freedom from, we are ready for the
freedom to; the freedom to serve God. And Passover is certainly full of
many opportunities to perform mitzvot, to serve God.
When you sit down at your seder this year, remember that the holiday is
NOT just about celebrating freedom from Egyptian enslavement. Spend a
few minutes of your seder conversation of exploring the question of why
God wanted us to be free. What is the “freedom to” we are commanded to
Rabbi Barry Leff
The world is built on three things: on the Torah, on service of God, and
on lovingkindness…Pirkei Avot 1:2
Rabbi Barry Leff
Beth Tikvah Congregation
9711 Geal Road
Richmond, BC V7E 1R4
phone: (604) 271-6262
fax: (604) 271-6270
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