NEW YORK — We have a love-hate relationship with boundaries.
We hate being confined or told what to do. Many adults don’t like having a boss, and many schoolchildren get annoyed when the answer is “no.” Boundaries limit our individuality, intrude upon what we want to do and sometimes feel like an arbitrary obstacle to getting what we want.
For children, limits of time (bedtime), sources of enjoyment (how much ice cream for dessert) or behavior (being scolded for shooting a toy bow and arrow around the living room) can seem like arbitrary rules that stymie their ability to fully enjoy the activity at hand in favor of some far-off goal that only their parent understand. As a grown-up, when I see a sign that says, “Keep off the grass,” I want nothing more than to frolic in my bucolic surroundings.
But we also love boundaries because we know that without them, life would be chaotic.
As a parent, we know setting firm boundaries helps us raise our children and run our households. As a global citizen, we know that boundaries help us create civilized societies. And as Jews we know that boundaries help define who we are and what our purpose is.
No holiday helps us understand this more than Passover.
The form of the holiday is all about boundaries. The flow of the seder — not to mention the very word itself, which means order — requires us to take each step at a time, in a certain sequence. The rabbis teach that one does not fulfill one’s obligation of the seder until we have completed speaking about the pascal offering (pesach), matzah and the bitter herbs (maror).
The themes of Passover also require a degree of prescriptive recitation. On seder night, we travel from slavery to freedom, from being idol worshippers to worshipping God, and in the words of the haggadah, from degradation (genut) to praise (shevach).
We understand these central themes of the holiday by the rituals on seder night. We have particular symbols on the seder plate. We ask four questions, hinting to us that our ability to ask questions itself is an act that reflects our status as free people. We drink four cups of wine, which relate to four languages of redemption from the Torah itself, when God says, “I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt”; “I will save you from their bondage”; “I will redeem you”; and “I will take you to me as a people.”
Recited in this sequence, we are encouraged to reflect how liberation from Egypt is a process from physical subjugation to forging a new relationship with God.
Our story of liberation is a carefully scripted narrative. And while creativity is not only allowed on seder night but encouraged (in fact, the haggadah itself exhorts, “anyone who increases the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy”), the prescribed ritual matters.
It’s counterintuitive. If we are celebrating freedom, why can’t we be free to choose how we want to celebrate a holiday of freedom? A Jewish Woodstock? An intellectual salon contrasting the haggadah with other literary works of freedom? Freedom drum circles with a “L’chaim” to Elijah at the end?
Freedom from slavery is one kind of freedom that we celebrate on Passover, but that is only half of the story. We were liberated from Egypt not to wander as free spirits in the wilderness but for a purpose — to serve God.
The words are interesting here — we escape from “avodah kasha” (“difficult labor”), which the Egyptians forced upon us, to “avodat Hashem” (“worship of God”) and a system of life that God reveals to Moses and the children of Israel at Mount Sinai 50 days later. The fulfillment of Jewish freedom is a life of commitment, direction and purpose.
We can understand what a purpose-driven freedom means from the Pirke Avot (the Teachings of our Fathers) interpretation of the verse from Exodus, “the word of God was harut [engraved] on the stone tablets [that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.]” (Exodus 32:16) In Pirke Avot 6:2, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi writes, "Don't read carved [harut] but rather freedom [heirut], for there is no free person other than one who is occupied with Torah."
Here there is a word play between “engraved,” which connotes rigidity, and “free.” If we neglect a relationship with the Divine, which is established here through the study of Torah, and more broadly with our Jewish tradition and the ethical system that has been passed down to us through the generations, then we lack freedom.
One of the lessons of Passover is that only within boundaries and structure can we experience true freedom. When we create appropriate physical boundaries for our children, they are able to play and express themselves freely. When we embrace the boundaries of Jewish commitment through holiday and Shabbat celebration and learning, we open up for ourselves the contours of a meaningful life. We fill our lives with the grand narratives (of pursuing justice and working to free slaves) and lofty ideals (like the importance of Shabbat and turning off our ego-driven selves for a day to become attuned to our souls).
And when we see that our duty as global citizens requires us to put others’ needs before our own desires, we create caring societies.
This Passover, celebrate the commitments you have made — to your family, your Jewish community and the world, and feel truly free.