What does it mean to be free? How do we gain our freedom? It might just be in seeing what’s in front of us.
The Festival of Freedom
Passover is widely known as a holiday on which Jews celebrate freedom. At the Seder, we tell the story about how God set our ancestors free from slavery in Egypt.
There’s just one problem: a notable absence of the word freedom in the story.
In various places, the Torah and Haggadah state that God “took us out of Egypt.” Later in the book of Exodus, at Mount Sinai, God introduces Himself to the people as “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt.”
Even more strange is the language of Exodus 13:8, which we consider the source of the commandment to tell the story on Passover:
And you shall tell your child on that day, because of this the Lord acted for me when I came out of Egypt.
This phrasing — when I came out of Egypt — seems to completely downplay God’s role in the process. It implies that God got involved only after the Children of Israel were already on their way out. That’s a big leap from the concept that God freed them from Egypt.
The Hebrew words for freedom — cheirut and chofshi — are missing from the story.
Doesn’t it seem strange that a holiday known as the “Festival of Freedom” doesn’t actually mention the word freedom in its story?
I’ll admit that you can make a reasonable argument that “taking us out of Egypt” is close to “freeing us from Egypt.” But it’s not the same. And also, how do we explain the language of Exodus 13:8: When I came out of Egypt?
There’s no question that the theme of freedom is central to story of the Exodus. So why is freedom absent from the language? And what, if anything, does this teach us about our own freedom?
My answer is that God did not free the Israelites by taking them out of Egypt. Rather, God made it possible for the Israelites to free themselves, and then he took them out of Egypt.
The Role of the Ten Plagues
If you have been to a Seder, or look at the Haggadah, you will see that we don’t really tell the full story as it appears in the Book of Exodus. In fact, the closest we get to recounting any part of the story is when we recount the Ten Plagues that God inflicted upon Egypt to persuade Pharaoh to release the Children of Israel from slavery.
Rather than simply obliterate the Egyptians in one magical blow, God used the plagues to prove his power to the Egyptians and to the Israelites. The Egyptians worshipped elements of nature as gods, including the Nile River, animals and the sun. The plagues served as proof that God, as supreme creator, controls all beings and elements in the world that He created. He can create and destroy at his will.
Through nine plagues, Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened; he refused to let the Children of Israel free. The first nine plagues slowly decimated the Egyptians’ morale and simultaneously built trust in the Israelites. The Israelites could see the plagues’ effects on the Egyptians, even as they were spared.
The Tenth Plague
The final plague was not merely a curse on the Egyptians; it was also a test of faith for the Israelites. To this point, the Israelites were spared from the harm of the plagues. The tenth plague — the killing of the first-born — would be different. The Israelites had to take action to avoid harm from this plague. Moses conveyed God’s instruction that they should sacrifice a lamb and put the lamb’s blood on the door post, so that the angel of death would pass over (i.e., Passover) their houses and spare their first born.
We might reasonably ask: Why was this necessary? Doesn’t the all-knowing, powerful God know which houses belong to the Israelites?
Of course He does. The purpose of the blood on the doorpost was not to ward off the angel of death; it was to test the Israelites’ faith in God.
A Test and a Choice
God’s instruction left no room for hiding; it required that the people show their faith in a public manner: by spreading the blood on their door posts — on the outside of their home — where everyone could see it.
Nobody would force them to do this, and nobody would do it for them. Each household had to choose whether to take this action.
The Egyptians worshipped the lamb as a god. The action of sacrificing the lamb — not just killing it, but flaunting that slaughter by spreading the animal’s blood on their doorposts —could provoke the Egyptians into retaliation.
On the other hand, if they showed their faith in God by following these instructions, God would save their first-born children and protect them from any retaliation by the Egyptians.
This was a test of their faith, and the choice offered to them.
This was the moment when the Children of Israel became free.
Freedom lies in recognizing you have a choice.
The Hebrew word for Egypt — Mitzrayim — originates from the word meitzar, meaning “sea straight” (it is also one of the Hebrew words that can mean neck or throat). The word Mitzrayim can also mean “boundaries, limits, restrictions” or “narrow place.”
Slaves are told what to do, and they must comply. God issued the warning of the tenth plague, and offered the Israelites a way to save their first-born children. It was not a mandate, but rather an option. By presenting this option, God took the Israelites out of Mitzrayim — out of the narrow place with restrictions.
In recognizing that they had an option, the Israelites freed themselves. Those who chose to follow the instructions publicly displayed their choice to put their faith in God.
Freedom Through Choice
The Children of Israel did not become free when God took them out of Egypt. They became free when they recognized they had a choice: to trust in God, or remain in the status quo.
Those who chose to trust God left Egypt.
This is why it doesn’t say that God freed the Israelites from slavery. God set things in motion and opened the field of possibilities, but the Israelites had to do their part. They had to trust in the power of the supreme creator and in the Divine timing. And they had to choose to publicly show their faith through the signal on the outside of their homes.
The Israelites earned their freedom by recognizing that they had a choice. When God took them out of Egypt, they were already free.
Choice: Action and Mindset
This is the story of freedom we celebrate on Passover, and the lesson we learn. Freedom lies in recognizing that we have a choice. Of course, sometimes we don’t have a choice in what action to take. Or we don’t have a choice in our external circumstances.
But we always have a choice in what things mean. When we hit a bump in the road, or we fall into a big hole, we decide whether its a failure or just a setback. When we decide to release ourselves from a goal, we get to decide whether we gave up or reprioritized.
No matter what the circumstances, we have a choice: We can choose to be defined by our circumstances, or by how we rise up through them.
In recognizing that choice exists, we find freedom.
This is an excerpt from larger, working project in which I use Passover as case study to explore the role of rituals in enhancing productivity, meaning and fulfillment in our lives. Members of my community receive insider access to updates, sections not published publicly, behind the scenes insights, and other special goodies. They also get VIP access and special discounts for The Ritual Revolution, my upcoming program on designing productivity rituals. Wanna join the club? Membership is free and we’d love to have you! Just sign up!