Published: “To be truly free, we must shed our mental shackles” Faith Matters column

Every year on Passover, Jewish families sit together with friends, neighbors and relatives to partake of the Seder and tell the story of Passover. “Seder” means “order,” and there is a structure to the story and meal. This is a story of the birth of the Jewish people, and we are instructed to teach it to our children as if we ourselves were there when the miracles took place.

Passover is my favorite holiday. I decorate the house with pictures of Egypt and Israel, paint “blood” on the doorframe and create a multisensory experience to tell the Passover story. Passover is an opportunity to connect each generation to each other and to our roots as a people. This holiday connects the Jewish people through the Seder, the order of the meal and the retelling of our liberation. Perhaps that is why Passover is observed among American Jews more than any other Jewish holiday.

It is a story of our birth. It is a story of our redemption. It is a story of our freedom.

Our rabbis teach us that Hebrew slaves were forced to build all day and by nightfall destroy what they had built. The work was endless, without meaning or satisfaction. A slave is not given a sense of purpose and does not merit self-determination. A slave is in a constant state of degradation and pain.

And from this pain, a people were born. We list the 10 plagues, each one a testament to the power of God and the destruction of the false Egyptian gods. From blood and frogs to darkness and the slaying of the firstborn, God brought the mightiest of empires to its knees and redeemed the people of Israel.

And through these miraculous acts, we were freed. Yet we were not truly free, as we did not merit entering the land of Israel and instead wandered in the desert for 40 years. Why were we not granted entrance to the land? Why were these people who witnessed plagues and miracles for their own sake unable to merit Israel?

These freed slaves could not shake the mental bonds of their slavery. They were not free in mind or spirit, and were therefore unable to enter Israel. They could not understand their freedom and remained slaves in spirit. They were denied entry to Israel, ultimately making them unable to fully serve God.

We suffer from this same form of mental or spiritual slavery today. We may not accept our own self-worth or value. We subjugate ourselves to false ideals of perfection, beauty or the judgment of others. Perhaps we are slaves to technology, our careers, anxieties or our failures. If we continually reflect on our faults, we enslave ourselves to our own negativity. If we constantly immerse ourselves in seeking self-fulfillment, we become slaves to our desires.

It is a delicate balance to avoid the extremes. Passover teaches us we must walk this fine line, as Passover itself is inherently a holiday of contradictions: We tell the story of our slavery and of our freedom; we eat matzah (the bread of affliction) yet rest on pillows and recline like kings. These conflicted messages teach us to walk a middle path.

Only by being true to ourselves, moderating our faults and needs, are we free. And only someone who is truly free is able to give back to others and, by doing so, fully serve God.

This Passover, may we free ourselves from our mental and spiritual slavery. May we redeem ourselves from the mental bonds and spiritual chains that ensnare us. May we truly become free and, in doing so, may we merit fully serving God.

Karolyn Benger is the Orthodox Judaism AZIFM Council member and community relations consultant.

It is a delicate balance to avoid the extremes. Passover teaches us we must walk this fine line, as Passover itself is inherently a holiday of contradictions.

Faith Matters

Karolyn Benger Guest columnist

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