There is a song that my friends and I used to listen to at camp. In fact, it was a sort of theme song as we gathered each summer to escape the pressures of school and parents alike. I no longer remember the name of the group who sang the song, but I do remember its refrain. The words were, “I’m free, to do what I want, any old time.”
That song always comes to mind as we read through the Hagada at our Passover seders. For this is the time of year to think about what it means to be free, especially when we recall the Exodus from Egypt and the so-called freedom it gave to our people.
“So-called freedom” because what the Israelites experienced upon leaving Egypt would hardly be called freedom in our world. For them, freedom meant the result of carrying out the promises God made to our people — HOTZETI — I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt … HETZALTI — I shall rescue you from their solitude … GA’ALTI — I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments… and finally, LAKACHI — I shall take you to Me for a people … each Passover we are reminded of how God liberated our people from the bondage of Egypt.
It was freedom, to be sure; but different than our modern day associations with freedom. The commentators tell us that for the Israelites, freedom meant being rescued by God, being delivered from the burden of both their physical servitude and spiritual bondage. We can understand the nature of physical slavery. But what does it mean to be spiritually oppressed?
Our people were trapped in a slave mentality; they were unable to think of themselves in terms other than those laid out for them by their masters. They had difficulty seeing themselves as individuals. They had become used to being others’ property. They did not know how to live as free men and women, for as they wander through the desert, they beg Moses to allow them to return to their oppressors; the difficult life in Egypt looked good when compared with the uncertainty of what lay before them. Much to Moses’ chagrin, they began to idealize Egypt, seeing it as the Mecca we know it never truly was. Their spirits were broken; therefore, God needed not only to physically rescue the people, but to spiritually redeem them from Egypt as well.
Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, comes from the word “metzar” meaning “narrow” or “constricted.” Egypt was the ultimate place of constriction. It was a place that crushed the spirit. It seemed unlikely that anyone, let alone an entire nation, could leave there without God’s help.
It is this sentiment that has lead to an ever-changing definition of Egypt, of “Mitzrayim.” It is difficult to name today’s Mitzrayim; it has many manifestations. Prejudice, discrimination, bigotry, hunger, poverty and depression … each of us has a Mitzrayim — a place that at times feels narrow and constricting. Each of us has a place that brings our spirits down … It is from this place that we continually struggle to be freed.
Every Passover we read in the Hagada, “Each person is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she had actually come out of Egypt.” Each of us is obligated to find that same sense of relief at having left Mitzrayim behind us. This means both the Egypt of our ancestors and the Mitzrayim that we face today. Each of us receives the beckoning to leave our pressures, our own constrictions, our own Mitzrayim behind us. The message of Passover then, is that we can escape from the things that trap us in narrow places. We can find the freedom that we seek.
May it be possible for us during this week of Passover to help each other to be physically and spiritually free of Mitzrayim, whether it is the Egypt of old, or today’s pressures.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)