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At Passover, a Celebration of Freedom rss

Posted on: April 15th, 2011

By John S. Ruskay

At last we come to Passover, the most observed of the Jewish holidays, which comes in glorious spring, when the world is visibly and audibly renewing itself. From year to year, we fulfill the commandment to retell the story of our liberation from Egypt to our children, reliving both our bondage — avadim hayinu, we were slaves in Egypt — and our deliverance. In so many ways, Passover provides inspiration to all who seek freedom.

Yet, for a festival of freedom, Passover imposes the most restraints of all our holidays. There are strict laws governing what and where we may eat for eight days. No leavened bread. Some allow legumes and rice, others forbid it. Passover requires self-discipline; it demands strict obedience to tradition. When scholars argue that all religions are functionally equivalent, I reply, half jokingly: They haven’t studied the laws of kashrut for Passover! Embedded in these laws, I think there is an important lesson about freedom that is especially timely this year.

For the last few months, we’ve been listening to the calls for freedom emanating from the streets of the Middle East. With Israel facing growing international isolation, we are closely monitoring the changes on its borders. I believe we are united in cheering on all who quest for freedom and liberty while harboring deep concerns — transitions from dictatorships to democracy are perilous, and few have been successful. We search for those who recognize that freedom requires discipline and order to prevent chaos and havoc. Freedom framed by respect for law can lead to democratic societies, which while often falling short of our loftiest aspirations can provide a stable framework for men and women to better their lives.

This powerful teaching about freedom is one of the many reasons I look forward to Passover, especially this year. There is also the joy of family and generations coming together, the eldest eagerly anticipating the recitation of the Four Questions by the youngest; learning from everyone at the table, as all are invited to contribute an understanding and insight; singing yet again the songs associated with family that surrounds us and those who have left us. And creating opportunities for people to recommit to helping liberate those who may still feel enslaved by tyrants, hunger, or severe emotional and financial hardship.

Within this context — at once joyful and sobering — I hope each of us can recognize the need for limits — personally, communally, and politically — while also embracing the quest for freedom.

May each of you enjoy a meaningful and evocative celebration of freedom.

John S. Ruskay is executive vice president & CEO of UJA-Federation of New York.