The best slave is the one who thinks he is free. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The Beginning of the Journey
Although the Passover seder is the most widely celebrated Jewish ritual, many Jews who go to a seder don’t necessarily realize that the holiday lasts for eight days. Even fewer are familiar with the holiday that comes next in the calendar: Shavuot, which commemorates when the Jews received the Torah at Mount Siani and made their covenant with God.
On Passover we celebrate the beginning of the journey, which was the Exodus from Egypt.
Notably, the language we use does not describe how God “freed us from slavery.” We say “God took us out of Egypt.”
This is because they were not yet free. As commentators explain, although the Israelites may have left Egypt, Egypt was still in them.
How We Hold Trauma
There is wisdom here that predates, by thousands of years, a concept that modern scientists are still trying to fully understand: the trauma of our experiences lives within us, even after those experiences are over.
You can’t just flip a switch to go from slavery to freedom, from limited to limitless.
The experiences of trauma lives in our mindsets, attitudes and beliefs, our emotions, and in our bodies.
Trauma might be physical slavery, as in the case of the ancient Jews or Holocaust survivors, or African-American slaves, or it might be “slavery” to something else.
Enslavement is a Habit
The reality is we are all slaves to something – to work, a way of working, a relationship, fear, food, social media, news, a lack of discipline or too much discipline, love or a lack of love, approval, expectations, emotions, perfectionism, illness, an image we try to maintain.
Enslavement is a habit that needs to be broken and transformed over an extended period of time – a time that is refining and healing.
Rabbi Jacobson explains that the purpose of the 49-day break between Passover and Shavuot, during which time we count the days of the Omer, is to create space for this transformation. They may have been physically free from slavery, but they needed to attain personal freedom within themselves.
The word Mitzrayim (‘Egypt’ in Hebrew) means limitations and boundaries and represents all forms of constraints that inhibit our true free expression. The Jewish people’s redemption from Egypt teaches us how to achieve inner freedom in our lives.
After leaving Egypt the people had to traverse the desert for 49 days until they were ready to reach the purpose of their Exodus — receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. This 49-day process is the key to true freedom.
Freedom is not born overnight; it needs patience and training and carefully acquired skills. It needs an education in freedom. Without it, a society can all too quickly lapse into chaos or conflict, rivalry and war.
The Israelites of Moses’s day were unprepared for liberty, and the Bible faithfully records tier quarrels and disorders. It took a new generation to be ready to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land. As Menachem Mendel, the Rabbi of Kotzk, put it, “It took one day to get the Israelites out of Egypt. But it took forty years to get Egypt out of the Israelites.”
The Curriculum For Freedom
According to the Kabbalah, during the period of counting the Omer we don’t merely count the days.
Rabbi Jacobson explains:
With the mitzvah of counting the forty-nine days known as Sefirat Ha’Omer, the Torah invites us on a journey into the human psyche, into the soul. There are seven basic emotions that make up the spectrum of human experience. At the root of all forms of enslavement, is a distortion of these emotions. Each of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot is dedicated to examining and refining one of them.
This is brilliant. It’s a ready-made curriculum designed to help us transcend our personal limitations and obstacles.
When I first read this, I wondered why, in 12 years of attending Jewish schools, I had never heard of this before. Why is this not taught in schools?
I don’t have an answer for that, but here’s what I do know:
This is exactly what we need right now in this time of self-quarantine. We may be confined to our homes, but we can pursue a path to find freedom even within that confinement, recognizing the breaking the habit of enslavement is a long journey within.
Ultimately, freedom is an inside job.