Jews are commanded in two mitsvot concerning recalling the exodus from Egypt. We are commanded to mention it every day, and we are commanded to recount the story on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan. For the daily mitsvah, a mere mention to oneself is sufficient; for the night of the seder one is supposed to tell the story in detail to someone else, and to recite special praise (Hallel) at its conclusion. Hence the shape of the seder – the story is told in response to the four questions and concludes with Hallel. Peoples of many traditions celebrate the day they gained freedom, but not many include in their celebrations communal consideration of what it means to be free. Fulfillment of the mitsvah to recount the exodus on the fifteenth of Nisan requires some description of the condition of the Israelites prior to acquiring their freedom. We are called upon to recall what servitude is like, its hardships and despair. After we have told each other the story in this way, we sing G-d’s praises (see Mishnah Pesachim 10:4-5).
But freedom is not one of those things that once attained is simply there. Being free is not something one learns to do, and then has accomplished it – like riding a bicycle or writing the alphabet; it is, rather, a kind of conversion of perception and thought that needs to be continually re-accomplished. This is because we cannot help but be complicit with forces that work to limit our freedom. This is true on both the social-political level and the individual level. On the political level, even in stable democratic countries the desire for wealth and power that drives capitalist economics fosters many types of exploitation, from unlivable wages to child labor and human trafficking. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. We are all partners in a political freedom that need be constantly accomplished: if we stop trying to accomplish it – it disappears. Political freedom is a collective enterprise in which all are responsible for the freedom of all.
Something similar is true on the individual scale as well. Think of what mastering a language entails – one cannot do that without submitting to its grammar and syntax. But in that submission lies a great freedom that only language use brings. In a similar way, we all learn to master our culture’s resources for social interaction and for articulating values like freedom. But in doing that we submit to those resources, and here the submission may be less liberating. We are all taught how to behave: just as we need a language to communicate we need also codes and expectations that allow us to interact effectively and claim meaning for our lives. But these codes and expectations inevitably limit our range of possible actions and meanings. If we do not give attention to this, we fall into rote behavior and thinking in slogans.
In recalling the story of the exodus each day and dwelling on it at length each Pesach we remind ourselves that learning to be free means continually pushing up against those realities that inevitably tend to limit our freedom. Our identity as a people was born in the story we lovingly narrate to each other on Pesach, a story of freedom – not achieved but accepted as a task.