Is Freedom Really Free? Exploring the Ritual of the Seder 

March 15, 2021

By Dr Batsheva Lax, Courtesy of Congregation Rodfei Sholom 


The Oxford English Dictionary defines freedom as a noun: “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” This makes sense considering the way the word freedom is utilized by society, however if we think about itwe are governed daily by so many restraints beyond our control. We are governed by the laws of time, physiological needs such as eating, sleeping and staying warmas well as the laws of the government.  

If we would like to live by the definition of the Oxford English Dictionary, especially during this time of sheltering in place, we could argue that we are not free at all; we are going against the American standards of liberty as in “liberty and justice for all” or “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” stated in the pledge of allegiance and Declaration of Independence respectively.  

The idea of freedom is far more complex and philosophical than the dictionary’s scarce definition. Various sources have different perspectives on ways to explain the word freedom and how we implement this phenomenon in our daily lives. 

Exercise: Discuss the meaning of the word freedom. Allow each member to express whether the meaning is free from all obligations or whether a basic structure must exist prior to obtaining true freedom... 

Source 1: It is customary to recite the following poem out loud before beginning the Seder – “Kadesh UrChatz”. This poem summarizes the Seder night ceremony and has been attributed to Rashi and to Rabbeinu Shmuel of Falaise, one of the בעלי התוספות (Tosafists). By all accounts, this poem is from the period of the ראשונים (Rishonim). 

There are fifteen parts to the Seder; a number which carries considerable significance. There were fifteen steps in the בית המקדש (Holy Temple) where the Leviim sang daily before Hashem. There are fifteen מזמורי תהילים (Psalms) that begin with the words “שיר המעלות”(Song of Ascents). Every month, fifteen days are required until the moon waxes into full moon. There are fifteen generations from Moshe to Shlomo Hamelech and the building of the בית המקדש in Yerushalayim. The number fifteen will appear again in the Seder during the song Dayeinu, describing the steps taken from leaving מצרים (Egypt) until building a life in ארץ ישראל (the land of Israel). It is from here that we can suggest that the number fifteen represents a spiritual סימני movement upward  an “ascent.” Rav Kook taught that these fifteen steps, known as the Seder sections, are to be viewed not merely as a different rituals that are הסדר performed, but rather they should be viewed as guided steps that are building upon each other. 

These steps are the rungs in a ladder that are intended to move us toward a spiritual ascent as we follow the signposts throughout the Seder. 

If we consider the overall picture of the night, we open the night with Kadesh, a call to each of us to engage in sanctifying the night with the special rituals and study of the Haggadah. When we reach that final step at the end of the night, Nirtzah, we are no longer called upon to follow a ritual or take a particular action. The word Nirtzah is in passive form, therefore suggesting that we have attained a feeling of freedom and holiness. We feel uplifted.  

The fifteen steps are meant to guide us so that we may grow spiritually from the Seder experience. This is akin to the more relatable adage “work hard, play hard” because our continuous spiritual efforts now allow us to achieve the greatest rewards, to bask in the glory of true freedom that we have essentially created and built for ourselves. The number 15 also is one day more than the recommended time to spend in quarantine if one is free of symptoms  a more contemporary level of freedom. 

EXERCISE: What spiritual steps are you taking to reach your true freedom? 

Source 2: In Exodus 14:30-15:19, the Jews are singing Az Yashir, a song composed of varying music notes, with high and low keys expressing their collective gratitude to Hashem for freeing them from slavery. Rabbi Gedaliah Shorr explains that the musical notes composing this song made it unique and unlike any song of praise or thanks ever before. Each key represents the highs and lows of the Jewish people and when it all comes together, we can truly appreciate its beauty.  

The lows, although we all prefer to do without them, are what make the highs so great and what makes life beautiful. This is very relatable during this pandemic as we feel scared, helpless and confined. We will all appreciate our daily routines, friends and vacations that much more. We can appreciate the symphony of our own lives and the beautiful melody we create within it. Disclaimer: The Jews were taken out of slavery; however, they were not truly free until they were in their own land of Israel following Matan Torah, receiving the holy bible with all its commandments, the ultimate freedom. 

EXERCISE: can you reflect on any lows in your life that turned out to be a blessing in disguise? Or do you have a song of faith, hope or praise that you feel compelled to sing in difficult times or joyous occasions? 

Source 3: In Pirkei Avot 6:2, it states, “For there is no free man but one that occupies himself with the study of the Torah. And whoever regularly occupies himself with the study of the Torah he is surely exalted as it is said, “And Mattanah to Nahaliel; and Nahaliel to Bamoth” (Numbers 21:19).  

The Gemara in Eiruvin 54a translates this as Mattanah – a gift, Nahliel– an inheritance and Bamoth – to be exalted. The explanation for this is that Torah is a gift which is inherited and those who study it will be exalted. Rabbi Lax further explains exalted to mean a higher state where you are spiritually uplifted, less bound to the details in this world and thus more free. By studying Torah, one will be able to transcend the confines of the physical world and appreciate the higher purpose that we strive for each day. 

EXERCISE: What portion of Torah do you feel compelled to study to achieve your exaltation and freedom? 

Source 4: In his essay, “Choice and Human Dignity,” Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, renowned psychologist and authorexplains that freedom is “choosing one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances” Frankl believes that external demands may govern one’s life to a certain extent, however, these demands can become more restrictive over time whether it be with tighter government regulations or dwindling finances. Man may be left with no control over a given situation and still have freedom, freedom to choose how he reacts. He relates this to his works on the Holocaust where he described how people that lost their dignity and most primitive needs never lost the freedom to control their attitude. 

EXERCISE: Do you agree or disagree with the statement “Freedom is how you react to your circumstances?” Discuss this with those around you to gather additional perspectives. 

Source 5: Rollo May, an existential thinker, psychologist, and author of “Freedom and Inner Strength” describes freedom as “the ability to choose one’s response to the demands of the environment”. Furthermore, he explains that freedom and responsibility are essentially one and the same; for if one is not free, he is somewhat robotic and cannot be trusted with freedom. If one is free, he must take responsibility for his actions. Man may choose as he is free, however once he does, he must follow the rules of those choices.  

The ability to choose is the antithesis of being restricted, thus one must realize that when he chooses to live by the rules of the Torah, he is exercising his freedom with every choice he makes. We must begin to see the ways in which we govern our lives and our responsibilities as personal choices. Only then can we begin to enjoy all the pleasures they bring as this is our freedom. An example for this is bearing children – a central theme of the Seder night. Giving birth, or the number of children you chose to have, was a decision, a choice made. The great responsibility of child rearing, including being bound to feeding schedules, bedtimes, carpool timesare not seen as restricting, rather the way in which you chose to live your life and the priorities we have as a Jewish people to raise the next generation of leaders and thinkers and givers.  

Another example is a job; we choose to take on a job, responsibilities and all, not because we are seeking restrictions, but because it allows us freedom in the form of a paycheck or autonomy in the workplace with a level of fulfillment, structure and responsibility which often give us the most satisfaction. Rules are not meant to be restricting; they are a meant, like homework to a schoolchild, to help us gain knowledge and lead us to our ultimate goals. 

EXERCISE: What was a choice that you made that included many responsibilities while also giving you the most freedom? 

Source 6: Structure is crucial in freedom. Seder means order  discussing the redemption in an orderly fashion. We are only free when there is a structure in place. The Maharal explains that just as nature has an order, miracles need an order. Throughout exile, everything is an order, nothing is left to chance. This order is what allows to be truly free, because without order we have anarchy. Anarchy is chaos, not freedom. 

By celebrating our freedom from slavery on Pesach, we are essentially celebrating the choices we made as a collective to maintain our Jewish identity. Freedom is not free. We are only here today because our nation throughout history chose faith in the darkest of times. We only appreciate our freedom when we are tried with hardship. We pay the price always, but hard work pays off. Quarantine or social distancing will buy us life and health; living a life committed to Torah, albeit structured, will bring Mashiach – our redemption and the ultimate freedom. 

EXERCISE: Freedom is a choice – Do you choose to live as a passionate and devoted Jew every day or do you choose to feel confined by the rules of the Torah?