My Reflections on Freedom This Passover

 In combatting antisemitism, Promoting Tolerance, Random Thoughts

A few weeks ago, my dad called me and insisted that I prepare something ‘philosophical’ for Passover. I didn’t know what that meant, but he probably wanted me to write a speech. I adamantly refused claiming the usual, yet justified excuse: “Too much homework. I really don’t have time, and I really just can’t write another paper.” But at the Soffer house, dinners and holiday celebrations don’t just consist of delicious food, great people, and  fun conversations: they are the oasis of philosophical thought, where ideas springing from each member at the Seder table sparks invaluable connections and most importantly, moments of personal reflection through the perspectives of others. So, as a newly declared Philosophy & Public affairs major, I felt even more compelled to fulfill my father’s wish.

Maybe growing up in a cross-cultural home, especially surrounded by my mom (if you know her you’ll understand), has some influence on my profound love of philosophy. On my end though, I’ve felt utmost fulfillment studying philosophy in college thus far. It has expanded my ability to critically reflect on concepts in my life— on the individual front, my relationships, politics, religion, and beyond. To me, philosophizing (as I like to call it) is a divine-like force– both omnipresent and omnipotent–related to the ancient past, the here and now, to you and me, and to you yourself.

The study of something so abstract ridden with waves of ambiguity and room for constant interpretation —the causes of its criticism — leaves me radically stimulated intellectually. Although the lack of definite answers and rip currents of contentious debates just seem like a trap, this trap has actually endowed me the highest freedom and the most power. This is quite the oxymoron: How can so many tentacles of opinion wrapping you up in mind games be liberating?

Just reflect for a moment on the following: In your life, how many times are you confronted with a paradox or a contradiction that binds you to a certain situation? Doesn’t the more ideas you have to confront the issue provide you more freedom to choose which path you take?

On passover, we see the Israelites in a trap— quite literally— enslaved to the Egyptians. They have nowhere to turn but to their own people and themselves for hope; for prospects of freedom. While in a physical bind, the ability of the Israelites to maintain the attitude of liberty while enslaved made all the difference. They had no options, but what they did have were ideas. These ideas came from a will to put their minds together, devise collective organization, and discuss strategies of leadership to break the boundaries of oppression. Such a paradigm was never one to await salvation from misery, but to be personal agents for self-authorship along with determination of their futures and those of their children. Ideas– your mindset– can liberate you from any situation. Even if starting with a small sense of freedom, it gradually expands.

The story of the Jews’s exodus from Egypt and into the land of Israel involves many miracles that made freedom possible. However, I have come to believe strongly that religion, for me, involves the removal of mysticism from it. I believe such miracles–like those in Passover– ‘happened’ to symbolize the rewards reaped when efforts to fight for a cause are passionate and unrelenting. Such miracles ‘happened’ because the Israelites not only sought freedom from slavery, but expressed their desires for freedom and took action. God recognized that the Jewish people were resolute on fighting the status-quo to free themselves from their present situation, and more so, to attain their full potential for their freedom and that of their children. To make the world a better place for future generations remained, and remains, the core of the Israelistes ideology.

We see this today, in the land of Israel, a small but tiny state closed in by enemies. It remains a light of democracy in a region of dark despotic regimes, and is if not the most active powerhouse of innovation and culture in the world. Contemporary Israel was not attained by waiting for God’s salvation or for any leader to unhinge the chains of antisemitism or antizionism. It was attained by the fight of the Jewish people, inspired by their hardships to battle for a higher purpose without compromise.

In the story of passover, we learn that freedoms of humanity— freedom from oppression, from slavery, and ‘unhappiness’— are simply not enough. In ancient biblical writings, the Hebrew word “חרות” means “engraving” but it also means “freedom.” This suggests that one must engrave attitudes and ideas that maintain personal liberation in all situations. This paradigm consists of truth seeking (whether for oneself or of a certain cause), courage, and a confidence that your power— combined with the collective power of others— will help you achieve your purpose. It is the freedom to exercise our will in an orderly, disciplined manner. However, this calling of freedom to make calculated decisions and act upon them to author our own futures may be deeply challenging. The rewards though, are far greater, culminating in the most complex, indescribable, and fulfilling type of freedom. A sort of ‘miraculous’ freedom.

When people criticize the study of religion, the classics, or philosophy, they often deem it irrelevant or ‘just a rabbit hole,’ like I once had. Even going to Jewish school as a little girl was something I never realized the true value of until college. Today, I see myself transforming my views on religion: many traditional beliefs have diminished. However, I am confident that I am emerging a stronger Jewish person by seeking out the true meaning and relevance of Judaism to my life. I constantly draw from and critique the pool of values, ethics, and paradigms religion provides to make me the most effective and satisfied personal agent.

The story of Passover is an embodiment of this idea, and is no more crucial to understanding our tumultuous world. From COVID to the tragic war in Ukraine, we have endured moments of feeling simultaneously trapped, confused, and powerless. In this globalized era that has surpassed pandemics and a plethora of mass atrocities, it seems that we still cannot learn. We remain trapped— and a question that often ruminates in my mind is will we ever learn? 

We say, we reflect, we pledge, and we label, but the problem is that we still fail to take authentic action. The reason why we don’t see change is that we fixate on only the freedom from, and thereafter resort to complacency. We think it’s good enough. We settle. But the problem with settling for too long is that personal prowess and resilience are destined to disperse.

Authentic action is not a one-time ordeal: it is a constant effort to develop principles to grow personally and extend such growth outward. When we look in the mirror and we question why we feel trapped in any facet of our lives, we must see the resilience, persistence, and grit of the Israelites in Egypt until today as the key to unlocking chains of our own oppression. The mindset we harbor is where we fledge such beliefs, and that mindset is the one that motivates us to take action.

I hope that this Passover, each one of you can reflect on your individual lives— and here, at the Seder table, with those around you— to first, acquire the mindset to attain the freedoms from whatever binds you. But my urgency for all of you is to think beyond this, and discern what it is that will motivate your unconditional freedom to author your life.

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