Freedom to Wander, Freedom to Believe: Religious Freedom on Passover
It is probably a safe assumption that Passover is most likely to be associated with freedom. As we move through the Seder, we reflect on our ancestors’ fight for freedom and those around the world today who are not free.
What is interesting to me, though, is that the Torah is not translated for the words “freedom” or “free.” Moses does not go before Pharaoh and ask for freedom, rather he asks for his people to be let go. And, I think this is a subtle and important distinction. There is something particular about being released from oppression, compared to assuming the rights to live according to your own beliefs and views. They are hopefully complementary actions.
The United States reflects that trajectory: so many people from around the world have flung off chains of oppression to come here to live without fear that they will be persecuted for their religion, political views, race, national origin, or any other reason.
This is an important history that this country represents – many of our families share in that story. Our government has enshrined those values in our founding documents, proclaiming to the world inalienable rights that have served as a beacon throughout the world. It is due to those freedoms, particularly the emphasis on the separation of church and state and the free exercise of religion that the Jewish people, and other religious minorities, have been able to flourish in the United States, whereas elsewhere they have been targets of persecution.
This Passover, let us take a moment to give thanks for our ability to celebrate our holiday without fear. That the simple task of going to the grocery store and picking up matzah, kosher for Passover candy (especially the marshmallow-filled chocolate frogs), of standing unafraid in the kosher aisle is a freedom that our ancestors – could not have imagined – would not have been able to enjoy as slaves.
When the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, their bodies were not only enslaved by Pharaoh, but so were their hearts and minds, for they were not able to practice their religion. If they did, they had to hide it away from the watchful eyes of Pharaoh.
May we each take a moment at our Seder to think of all the people in the world who, for whatever reason, are not free to live according to the teachings of their faith. It is a story uniquely Jewish, for throughout our history the search for religious freedom has been constant, but also universal, for we are all people who want the simple but fundamental freedoms of religious practice – or non-practice – and of freedom of thought, speech, assembly and press. Dayenu!