As Pesach approaches, the Jewish internet is once again starting to fill up with articles on the meaning of the holiday. What I've always found amusing is the take on things that comes out of the non-religious portion of our nation. Just like Channukah, a holiday celebrating the victory of religious zealots over non-religious ones, has been turned into a gift-giving festival of "religious freedom", Passover continues to be presented as a holiday of liberation from physical slavery without any further dimensions.
Let us be clear: Pesach is not about the simple liberation from slavery we and our ancestors experienced in ancient Egypt. While the narrative from the first part of sefer Shmos is the basic foundation of the Seder and the customs surrounding the holiday, the meaning of Pesach is much deeper.
In fact, when it's properly understand once quickly realizes that there was, in toto, no real liberation at all during Pesach. Instead, the ruling authority in our lives changes. We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt. We became servants of God post-Egypt. Before, Pharoah's evil laws ruled the totality of our lives. After, God's Holy Torah gave us a new, more meaningful direction.
Thus when people speak about yetzias Mitzrayim and try to bring modern parallels, I usually roll my eyes.
Far beyond the Jewish community, it has influenced not only the religious traditions of Christianity and Islam, but also the life of black America and many modern secular liberation movements rooted in class, nation, culture and gender. It has even influenced efforts to free and heal the Earth from destructive exploitation.
The pharaoh motif invoked in news coverage of the recent Egyptian upheaval that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak was due certainly not only to geographic accident, but also to the nature of tyranny and popular resistance.
And the issues are not only macro-political, but apply also to the spiritual and psychological struggles of individual human beings confronting their own "internal pharaohs,” when one aspect of the self takes over the whole person, twisting and perverting a person’s humanity by turning other facets of the self into slaves that yearn for freedom and full integration.
Note that none of the examples in this excerpt from the JTA article actually fit into the Pesach story. Modern liberation movements, be they black, gay or whatever, generally work towards freedom from oppressive laws or societies. This is a goal towards something negative - removal of an evil set of circumstances. However, it is a rare event for any of these movements to work towards something positive, the establishment of something new and different. For many of these movements the goal is simply total integration into the surrounding society that has hitherto exluded them.
The Pesach experience is actually the opposite of such experiences. Yes, there was the removal of the negative - an ending to physical slavery to Pharoah, but there was also the positive - not simply remaining as Egyptian Jews or Jewish Egyptians - but rather the creation of a new society with a new morality and understanding of the purpose of creation, a society that would remain apart from others while developing to serve as an inspiration those those around them.
When we sit at the Seder table next week, we start off by saying Avadim hayinu - we were slaves - but go on to say that God then brought us close to Him. It is the positive result that is the real focus of Pesach, servitude to almighty God and all the goodness such offers. If we forget that, we forget the point of the holiday no matter how much we try to make it seem "relevant".