As another Passover begins, the echoes of "Once we were slaves and now we are free" and "Next year in Jerusalem" resound briefly and then fade into the background noise of everyday life. We can board a plane tomorrow and fly off to Jerusalem. Some of us are already there now. But will that make us free?
Freedom like slavery, is as much a state of mind as a state of being. It
is possible to be legally free, yet to have no freedom of action
whatsoever. And it is possible to be legally a slave and yet to be free
in defiance of those restrictions. External coercion alone does not make
a man free or slave, it is the degradation of mind that makes a man a
What is a slave? A slave is complicit in his own oppression. His slavery
has become his natural state and he looks to his master, not to free
him, but to command him. Had the Jews of Egypt merely been restrained by
physical coercion, it would have been enough to directly and
immediately smash the power of the Egyptian state. But their slavery was
mental. They moaned not at the fact of slavery, but at the extremity of
it. When their taskmasters complained to Pharaoh, it was not of
slavery, but of not being given the straw with which to build the
The worst slavery is of the most insidious kind. It leaves the slave
able to think and act, but not as a free man. It leaves him with
cunning, but not courage. He is able to use force, but only to bring
other slaves into line. And most hideously, this state of affairs seems
moral and natural to him. This is his freedom.
The true slave has come to love big brother, to worship at the foot of
the system that oppresses him. It is this twisted love that must be torn
out of him. It is this idolatry of the whip before which he kneels,
this panting to know who his superior and who his inferiors are, this
love of a vast order that allows him to be lost in its wonders, to gaze
in awe at the empire of tomorrow which builds its own tombs today, that
must be broken. These are his gods and he must kill them within himself
to be free.
The Exodus is not the story of the emergence of free men who were
enslaved, but the slow painful process by which slaves became a nation
of free men, a long troubled journey which has not yet ended. That is
why we celebrate Passover, not as an event of the past, but as of a road
that we still travel, a long journey from slavery to freedom.
Having escaped from Pharaoh, they built a glittering calf, and having
left the desert behind, they sought out a king. Every idol and tyrant
was another token of slavery, a desire to put one's ear up against the
doorpost and become slaves for life. The idols have changed, but their
meaning has not. There is still the pursuit of the master, the master of
international law, of a global state, the gods of the superstate who
rule over the present and the future and dispose of the lives of men.
There are far too many synagogues that worship the Democratic Party,
rather than G-d, that bow to the ghost of FDR, the glittering echoes of
Harry, Adlai and John, and the great golden statue of Hope and Change
squatting obscenely over it all. And in Jerusalem far too many eyes look
longingly to Washington and to Brussels, to the cities on the hill
which offer order, truth and peace.
In Egypt the system of the state had to be smashed, but not simply
smashed, but discredited. It could not be a mere contest of power, but
of reason. The war between slavery and freedom could not end until the
system of slavery had become ridiculous, until Pharaoh appeared a
buffoon and his power no more than organized madness. And yet even so
for a generation liberated from slavery, this majestic system, the only
one they had ever known, remained their template, and in times of
crisis, their immediate instinct was to retreat back to the only
civilization they had known.
The slavery of the present is a more subtle thing. It grips the mind
more tightly than the body. It still remembers that men enslave
themselves best. It knows also that true power comes from making all
complicit in its crimes so that they are also complicit in their own
degradation. The system only asks that each man enslave himself and kill
his own children. And once he has done that, he will only feel it right
to demand that everyone else do likewise.
This is the slavery of the system. It requires few whips and many words.
It nudges men to be their own taskmasters and to reach out their hands
to the new Pharaoh in the hope that he will save them. It is this
slavery which is so pervasive, which Passover wakes us from, if it has
not already been perverted into the Passover of the system, into civil
rights seders and eco-matzas, if has not become yet another tribute to
the Pharaoh of Hope and Change.
"Once we were slaves," the ancient words call on us to remember that we
have been freed. That it is no longer Pharaoh who enslaves us, but we
who enslave ourselves. "Now we are free men." But what is freedom
really? Is it the freedom of the system or the freedom of the self? The
system proclaims that they are one and the same. And that is the great
lie which ends in death.
Like the slaves of ancient Egypt, we are shaken, dragged out of our
everyday routine and commanded to be free. But how do you command men
and women to be free? You can lead them through the habits of free men
and women who think of themselves as kings and queens, who drink wine
while reclining, who sing loudly in defiance of all oppressors, who
boldly proclaim "Next year in Jerusalem" while the Pharaoh of Hope and
Change bares his teeth at Jews living in Jerusalem.
You can unroll the scroll of history and show them how they were taken
out, but all this routine is useless unless they understand and are
sensible that they are free. Free not in their habits, but in their
minds. Ritual is the gateway to a state of mind. A ritual of freedom
only succeeds when it invokes a state of mental freedom. Otherwise it is
a rite, a practice, a habit whose codes may help some future generation
unlock its meaning, but which means little today.
It is the ritual that reminds us that we are still on the journey, that
though we have been lulled by the routine of the system, the trap of the
present that like the soothing warmth of an ice storm or the peaceful
feeling of a drowning swimmer, embraces us in the forgetfulness of the
dying moment, concealing from us the truth that the journey is not over.
The desert still lies before us.
This journey is the human journey. It is the recreation of what mankind
lost when it defied G-d, when it turned with weapons on each other, when
it built towers, created systems and tried to climb to heaven on the
backs of slaves and pyramids. It is a transformative road that requires
us to not only endure, but to learn.
Surrounded by willing slaves who preach the creed of slavery, we must
speak for freedom. Though few seem to remember the journey or the
chains, it is our duty to remind ourselves. The message of Passover
fully begins only when the holiday ends and its habits carry over into
our daily lives. Once we were slaves, now we are free.