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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Born Free

By Rabbi Sender Haber

When we left Egypt, we were so free that we could never been enslaved again. Of course, we’ve had our share of servitude over the years. We’ve seen plenty of persecution, suffering, and abuse throughout the years. Still, nobody can truly enslave the Jewish nation. We possess a neshama and a mission that simply cannot be subdued or neutralized. Hashem has made us free.

About ten years ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks visited the Windsor Castle and delivered a lecture in the presence of Prince Philip. The Windsor Castle is the oldest inhabited castle in the world and has seen much of the glory of the British Empire as well as the dark stains of the expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward I in 1290 and other incorrigible massacres and libels.

Rabbi Sacks began his lecture by acknowledging the unique experience of growing up in a castle. He pointed out that a young prince or princess would have no choice but to take note of the deep history of their home and the expectations, protocols, morals, and obligations that came along with it.

“Jews don’t own buildings like Windsor Castle”, he continued, “We are not that kind of people. But we own something that is, in its own way, no less majestic and even more consecrated by time. The Jewish castle is built not of bricks or stone, but of words. But it too has been preserved across the centuries, handed on by one generation to the next, added to and enhanced in age after age, lovingly cherished and sustained. As a child I inherited it from my parents, as they had inherited it from theirs. It is not a building but it is nonetheless, a home, a place in which to live. More than it belongs to us, we belong to it; and it too is part of the heritage of mankind.”

As hard as people try to remove us from our heritage and to burden us with their prejudices and ideas, we remain free. We are free to feel and act and think as Jews. We are free to fulfill our role of being a light unto the nations and to make all of our decisions based on the will of G-d.

This can be a freedom that is hard to relate to as individuals. Reb Yitzchak Ezrachi of the Mir Yeshiva points out that on Pesach we celebrate the duality of our the escape from the bondage of Egypt as well as the opportunity to live and fulfill our own individual freedom to act and think as Jews.

During the year we become burdened by hangups, Mishegassin, addiction, bad habits and plain laziness. On Pesach, we can tap into the power of the seder to break out of our bondage and live in true freedom.

About a year ago I met a new friend who had made some bad mistakes and was in a lot of trouble. He had been passing through Virginia on a trip and made the terrible decision of picking up some untaxed merchandise for resale in New York. It seemed like a victimless crime, he was desperate for the money, and he figured that the worst that could happen was a slap on the wrist.

He could not have been more wrong. My friend ended up in a jail cell with veteran smugglers who ran entire smuggling rings across state lines. On paper, he was just as bad as they were. He told me that he didn’t know if he would stay in that cell for ten minutes, ten hours or ten years. He was petrified.

Fortunately, with some help from the right people, Moshe was able to get out on bail and begin the long, expensive, and embarrassing process of trying to avoid a decade in prison.

I suppose that there are some criminals with no regrets and no remorse. This young man was both regretful and remorseful and my wife and I made a decision to help him out.

As we worked together on the statement for the judge, Moshe made an exclamation to the effect of the following: “I just want to be free from this whole thing”, he said, “I want to be free from prison, free from lawyers, free from Askonim and free from all of these statements and decisions. I want to be free to start again, to get a normal job, to support my family, pay my rent and get on with life”.

He may not have used those exact words, but those were his exact feelings. They should be our feelings too.

As one of the local lawyers put it: “I forgot the word for it, but I learned in Yeshiva that people that look like you don’t belong in situations like these”. We get ourselves trapped in situations where we do not belong. We need to learn to break free, to follow our heart and to reset our moral compasses.

On the night before the trial Moshe stayed at my house in Norfolk. By 11:30 his family, his friends, the askonim, and the lawyers had all gone to sleep. Only the two of us were awake and as I prepared for bed I asked if there was anything else that I could do for him. He had a long day of travelling, meetings and decisions behind him and an important day in court before him. He asked for a Gemara Sukkah and a chavrusa. It wasn’t that he felt like a tzaddik or wanted to impress me. He just wanted to connect with Hashem and to free his Neshama of the burdens that he had brought upon himself. He wanted to reconnect with the freedom that we achieved when we left Egypt to receive the Torah.

We reviewed the Gemara, consulted the Rashi’s, and examined the Tosafos. We made a small diagram and arrived at a satisfactory conclusion. It was past midnight when we finally closed our Gemaras. We were both exhausted but we had no regrets at all. We had connected with something sane, something real, and something that would last beyond our present issues.

Last Monday, just as I was returning from Israel, Moshe received his final verdict. The judge allowed him to walk away with no more jail time, no more parole, and no more investigations. He has large fines and many bills to pay, but he is free to continue with his life and spend Pesach with his family. He was very grateful and sent me and the lawyer a box of Matzah, which I received at the end of last week.

At first I was perplexed by Moshe’s odd choice of gifts. I already had Matzos (Baruch Hashem!). My wife pointed out to me that the matzos from Moshe were more than just free matzos. These matzos were Matzos of Freedom. These Matzos were the most relevant and meaningful gift that I could possibly receive from a man who had just learned the true meaning of freedom. This was a man who would truly celebrate Pesach.

Every Pesach, as we eat our Matzah, we think of and experience the same taste that our forefathers tasted as they rushed out of Mitzrayim. This year, I’ll also be thinking of my individual matzos. I’ll be thinking of the freedom that each one of us has the ability and obligation to achieve in our own lives.

May we merit to truly feel the words which we articulate as we begin Hallel at the seder::

“Therefore we must thank, praise, pay tribute, glorify, exalt, honor, bless and acclaim the One who performed all these miracles for our fathers and for us: He took us from slavery to freedom, from grief to joy, from mourning to Yom Tov, from darkness to great light, out of bondage to. We will burst out in a new song before Him! Hallelukah!”

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