Passover is the Festival of our Freedom, so named because during the 10th and final plague the angel of death passed over the homes of the Israelites as the Egyptian first born died. We who observe this Festival know the story well, yet there is a detail in the text we often ‘pass over’ – and by doing so, we miss one of the most important lessons of the holiday:
Moses summoned all of the elders of Israel and said to them, “Draw forth or buy for yourselves sheep for your families and slaughter the Passover sacrifice. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and immerse it in the blood that is in the basin and you shall extend to the lintel and to the two doorposts the blood that is in the basin, and you shall not go out, anyone from the entrance of your house until morning.” (Ex. 12:21-2)
Not going outside while the angel of death is around certainly makes sense. Yet, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik offers a deeper interpretation. What does the oppressed slave want at the moment of freedom more than anything? Revenge, answers Soloveitchik, revenge through violent uprising against his or her oppressors.
In Judaism the end never justifies the means, but rather, the opposite holds true. The means actually influence the end. If during our first night of freedom we followed the brutal path of revenge, then what would our future have been? Soloveitchik writes: “On the night of freedom, the slaves performed the movement of withdrawal, of recoil, of self-defiance and self-limitation.” (Chumash Mesoras HaRav, Ex. 12:22)
One of the great gifts of Passover is the proclamation of freedom, but the secret sauce is a ‘playbook’ with lessons to help us stay truly free. As a first step, we must practice self-discipline, and restrain our base desires. Our forbears had to stay home rather than seek revenge, and today we deny ourselves the pleasure of chametz, of leavened bread – usually a staple at our celebrations. When we cultivate self-control in a Jewish context, we cultivate our moral lives. This is the first prerequisite for the development of free and just communities.
As for the rest of the playbook – well, you’ll just have to come to seder to find out!
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras