A Jewish Definition of Freedom

Image courtesy of Light Matters Studio
Image courtesy of Light Matters Studio

A contemporary definition of freedom, according to magazines and ads might be chocolate without consequences, bungee jumping, or abandoning work responsibilities for a trip to Mykonos.

If you ask the Kardashians, they would say true freedom is the ability to do whatever we want, whenever we want with whomever we want.

Pesach inspired a lot of “freedom” talk, but Judaism relates to freedom as an inside job. True freedom is the ability to choose who you will be in any situation. It’s the ability to behave differently from animals who have no choice but to react instinctively and to instead rise above impulsivity to live deliberately, consciously.

All of us have habits, beliefs and behaviors that happen automatically. Whether it’s blaming others, negative thinking, reaching for a cigarette, checking out, or procrastinating, these reactions or ways of interacting with life can feel beyond our control.

“This is the way I always do it.”
“I must be the best.”
“I must control everything and not be controlled by anything.”
“I must do it all myself.”
“I can’t help it, this is how I am.”

We put ourselves in bondage. We limit ourselves and shut ourselves off from the enormous abundance Hashem wants for us. Freedom is the ability to get out of the way and let Hashem in. It means rising above our impulses so that we are not slaves to animalistic desires, habits, impatience, the past, or fear.

This real freedom lives in the balance between initiative and partnership with Hashem. It empowers us to turn off the autopilot and steer, to lead our own lives. To choose:

“No, I won’t raise my voice.”
“Yes, I will ask for help.”
“Yes, I can change.”
“Now, I will begin.”
“I’m not alone. Hashem is my partner.”

Freedom does not only depend on external circumstances. Free is the man who is master of himself.

Watch out for the self-limiting story you or others have told you that keep you a slave. Freedom starts the moment you truly believe you can be free, the moment you walk into the unknown with faith, the moment you decide who you will be.

And this is holy work. It’s a great mitzvah for each of us to feel that we ourselves have personally left Egypt.

Share This Post
Follow Me

The Untold Story of Passover

nachshon-joyish.gifNo one ever taught me the “behind the scenes” story of Passover at my Sunday school. The main theme of the Pesach tale was always freedom from slavery—as in, escaping from Pharaoh. But as explained in last week’s post, “Passover Made Personal,” relating to Pesach as a mere history lesson wastes our present day opportunity.

The energy of freedom used by our ancestors to escape slavery remains alive and available to us every year during Pesach. Leveraged properly, we can each escape our own Mitzrayims (Egypts)—aka: our own limiting beliefs and behaviors.

But perfunctory participation won’t render results. Earning the energy of freedom requires emunah, faith. Faith that once the Seder ends, we have all the strength and resources we need to realize our new selves. We learn this Passover lesson from the often-untold story of a fella named Nachshon.

See, thanks to Cecil B. DeMille, most of us imagine Moses raising his staff before the sea, and the water splitting obediently. But, that’s Hollywood magic. In truth, the hero of that part of our history was Nachshon.

The actual scene: The Israelites stood dead ended and terrified on the bank of the sea with the Egyptians hot on their tails. Doubts overwhelmed them. Maybe they couldn’t break free after all! But one among them, Nachshon had no doubts. He had emunah (faith) despite the circumstances, such emunah that he began walking straight into the water.

The water reached his knees, the others looked on. The waves lapped at his navel, he determinedly moved forward. Salt water got into his mouth, nevertheless he persisted. Only when the water passed his nostrils did the water part, allowing the Israelites to hurry through the sea and seal their free future. Nachshon’s faith in Hashem split the sea.

Once we say “Next Year in Jerusalem” at the conclusion of our Seder tonight, we too will be free. But whether or not slavery captures us again depends on our emunah. So, hold your nose and move it, friends! May we each become the hero of our own exodus story and walk forward into our lives with total emunah, forcing our seas to part, enabling miracles and forever securing our freedom. Chag Pesach Sameach!

Share This Post
Follow Me

6 Suggestions for a more Spiritual Seder

Because my family and I live in different states, others have generously extended their Pesach tables to me over the years. In this way, I’ve gotten the chance to see lots of Seder styles. Some have been fun and fast, others dry and boring. But I can attest that meaningful Seders take the afikomen.

Elevating Ideas:

Set an Intention. At the start of the night, focus everyone on the purpose of the Seder.

Though a reminder of the past, the Seder also serves as a spiritual tool to plug us into the very same power the Israelites used to escape slavery. That mega-wattage can be accessed through the Seder, so that we can break free from our own modern-day limitations.

At some tables, everyone takes a turn sharing their focus, revealing their “pharaoh” per se, that they intend to leave behind.

Different Haggadot. Rather than have everyone use the same Haggadah, collect different ones so no two people have the same one. There are so many cool choices out there: illustrated Haggadot, kabbalistic Haggadot, children’s Haggadot, Sephardi Haggadot, Ashkenazi Haggadot, Haggadot from different synagogues, schools and rabbis! Let each person choose the one they fancy.

The main text of each Haggadah will be relatively the same, allowing round robin reading to continue. But, the footnotes, stories and tidbits will be different. Encourage each participant to share ideas s/he finds interesting. Because no two people share the same Haggadah, this is an easy way for everyone, even newbies, to contribute something unique to the Seder.

Lice, tzfardeah, action! Act out the story. Interactive, kid friendly and memorable, performing a mini-play helps everyone embody and internalize the story.

One family I know assigns roles to each person at the table. Of course, the Dad plays the pharaoh and the kids argue over (but decide in advance) who will play the heroes, Moses and Aaron. They throw on some costumes and bring the story to life through their practiced scene.

Plagues and corresponding props are assigned to everyone else at the table so that when we reach “tzfardeah!”(frogs/crocodiles) a bunch of mini-jelly frogs go flying into the air.

Gamify your Horseradish. Buy the horseradish root fresh. Cut it just before the Seder and make ‘em weep. Eating truly bitter horseradish serves an important purpose (beyond cleaning your sinuses).

Rather than swallowing as fast as possible to get it over with, try chewing and chewing the fresh stuff until the bitterness becomes sweet. Challenge yourself to stick it out. It will happen. It will. But not before smoke comes out of your ears, your neck turns bright red, and tears stream down your face! That’s ok. That’s part of it. No one said converting bitter to sweet was easy.

Bring it home. Have something specific in mind and convert your personal bitterness to sweetness. Sweat it out.

(A word to the wise: Have tissues on hand. Noses may run amuck.)

Make an Entrance: Open the door for Eliyahu, open the door to miracles. The ideal moment for prayers arrives along with Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the prophet). At this point in the Seder, Hashem is all ears. The gates are open to your biggest dreams! So, put it out there.

One family I know has a beautiful tradition. Each person takes a tea light and kindles it from the holiday candles. They go to the front door together and welcome Eliyahu inside with verbal greetings, “Bruchim HaBaim! Welcome!”

Then, they step outside with their tea lights and take a private moment to themselves to focus on their intention. Everyone shuts their eyes, meditates, silently talks to Hashem, and dreams under the stars. After taking this time, everyone comes back in, leaving the tea lights outside.

Packed with kavanah (intention), those 10 minutes or so add a lot.

Get into the Hebrew. Look, let’s be frank—English translations don’t cut it.

I assume I’m not the only one for whom the term “Passover” conjures up images of that creepy green “Angel of Death” smoke from The 10 Commandments that passed over the Jewish homes, sparing their first born sons. (That smoke terrified me so much as a kid that I would crawl into bed with my brother at night. Not to save him, let’s be clear. I’m the first born, you see, and…I guess I figured the Angel of Death was hip to the women’s lib movement.) How did Pesach become creepy-green-smoke-evoking Passover?
Tsk. Tsk. A poor translation.

Pesach literally means “a talking mouth.” (peh=”mouth,” sach=”is talking”) Right away, the Hebrew reflects the mitzvah of Passover which is to read the Haggadah and communicate the story ourselves.

Curiously, the word Haggadah comes from the Hebrew root higgid, which means “to tell.” We use the Haggadah to tell the story during the seder.

Seder translates to “order.”

Aha! The Hebrew itself shows us that on Pesach, we use our mouths to tell the story with the Haggadah and in so doing, we create Seder, order.

Order from what, you ask? Well, Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, which means “narrow straights, limitation.” (mi = from,” tzar= narrow/tight) There’s the answer: the Seder restores balance, order and freedom from dire straights and limitation.

Hebrew words hold secrets. Just by looking at a few key words, the holiday’s core essence begins to emerge.

Whether trying these traditions or creating your own, the only thing we should pass over during Passover are our limitations. A spiritual Seder can part the sea.

Share This Post
Follow Me

Passover Made Personal

Pesach: The Power to Break Free from Limitation

I’d venture to say that everyone from Martha Stewart to Target to Glamour Magazine all jumped on the annual Spring Cleaning craze thanks to us Jews. For millennia, we’ve been scrub-a-dub-dubbing around this time of year in preparation for Pesach (Passover) to completely rid our homes of every last spec of chametz (Passover unfriendly foods like bread, rice, most carbs essentially).

Still, getting the credit doesn’t convert the chore to a cinch…but, perspective does.

Zoom out: Passover gives us the opportunity to break free from our own personal Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt. This insight hides within the word itself: Mitzrayim מצרים comes from the word m‘tzarim meaning, “narrow straits.” (mi = from,” tzar= narrow/tight).

When we left Egypt, we didn’t just leave a country—we left our limitations. Every generation is commanded to recount the story and feel they too left Mitzrayim, and this is possible because we each have a Mitzrayim to escape.

Zoom in: Whether a slave to doubt, fears, insecurity, the scale, your account balance, habits, addictions or other people’s opinions, that reality is not a sentence. The opportunity to break free exists during Pesach. That’s why we clean.

The external cleaning process facilitates an internal one. The cleaning serves as a meditation during which we take a personal inventory, identifying crumbs of old behaviors we feel reluctant to or powerless to change. (You won’t find this soul-ular exfoliating scrub at Sephora—lather up!)

Without this important cleaning process, the Passover seder could easily devolve into mere ritual! But with a personal purpose identified, the spiritual technology of the seder סדר, which literally translates to “order” can do just that: transform inner-and-outer limitation to order and light.

This awesome opportunity to exit Egypt ourselves is what we’re preparing for as we clean. By doing this work, we set ourselves up to leave our own Mitzrayim, split our own red sea, and boldly walk through it to freedom.

Share This Post
Follow Me