At the beginning of the Passover seder, we sing:
Now we are slaves, next year we shall be free.
In this Coronavirus Passover, it makes for a good thematic tie-in to say that the coronavirus has turned us into slaves, forced to comply with the rules of self-quarantine and social distancing.
Words are important. They influence the meaning we give to situations and how we feel about experiences.
Saying that we are slaves to this coronavirus, or to the authorities reinforces a victim narrative.
This is Not Slavery
This is not slavery. Or even imprisonment.
Nobody is chaining us inside our homes or restricting our movements. There are no guards posted outside our doors, at least not in the United States.
We are not being forced to submit to the authority of others; to invest our sweat so that others may profit off of our labor without just compensation. Instead, we are being asked to cooperate with guidelines for the benefit of our own health and the well-being of all.
Although we often speak about our actions having ripple effects, we are now seeing in a very tangible way how interconnected we are as humans, the extent to which our choices and actions affect those around us — not just the people we know, but the people they know, and the people we come into contact with who we don’t even know.
Freedom = Choice
We have the most important freedom: freedom to choose how we look at this situation, freedom to choose how we describe this time, and therefore freedom in how we experience it.
As others have said: previous generations were asked to serve their country by going to war. We are being asked to serve by staying home.
If you have internet and WiFi and capacity to stream Netflix, you’re hardly in prison or slavery. Unless you consider how you’re a slave to your social media feed, which involves a different type of social distancing to cure — but that’s a conversation for another time.
The Aspiration of Freedom
The idea that we might voluntarily restrict ourselves for the sake of the greater good is, in fact, the essence of the freedom we sing about at the Passover seder.
In his commentary to the Haggadah, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that there are two words in Hebrew that mean “free.” The first is Hofesh, which is “freedom from.” When a slave is released from slavery, he receives Hofesh — freedom from being subject to another person’s will. But hofesh doesn’t create a free society. If each of us has absolute freedom without regard to others, we will have anarchy, not freedom.
The freedom we sing about at the seder uses the second word for freedom, herut, which is “freedom to.” As Rabbi Sacks explains:
Herut is collective freedom, a society in which my freedom respects yours. A free society is always a moral achievement. It rests on self-restraint and regard for others. The ultimate aim of the Torah is to fashion a society on the foundations of justice and compassion, both of which depend on recognizing the sovereignty of God and the integrity of creation.
Rabbi Sacks explains that the statement, “next year we shall be free,” is aspirational. It is a way of saying,
May we be free in a way that honors the freedom of all.
By choosing to stay home, we meeting this aspiration.
An Empowering Moment
This is an empowering moment: we are no longer in victim mode, slaves to the will of others and waiting for someone to come and redeem us from slavery. Instead, we are the redeemers. Our choice to stay home and observe physical distancing guidelines is an exercise of our own freedoms and honors the freedom of all.
We are the heroes we’ve been waiting for.
By choosing to stay home for the benefit of all is an embodiment of the freedom we’ve been praying for.