You're probably tempted to sing the words right now as you read; it is, after all, a sonorous "spiritual of old." "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last." But let's recall that we, the Jewish people, wrote the original score.
We say it; we pray it — so it must be true. Pesach z'man cheiruteinu — "Passover, the time of our freedom." Let's put that theory to the test, shall we? Consider back-breaking cleaning performed at break-neck pace every day for two weeks before the holiday, running to this store and negotiating this line to buy that special Passover product; cruising and careening in the other store to buy the other special Passover item. Freedom?
Indulge me a story. The famed novelist Herman Wouk in his eminently readable The Will to Live On recounts his first encounter with Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion. The first presentation of Wouk's Caine Mutiny in Hebrew was being performed at Tel Aviv's Habima Theater. It was a rousing success, and after the performance, Ben-Gurion invited the Wouks to visit his home at Sde Boker in the Negev Desert.
The year was 1955, and the fedayeen (Arab terrorists) were wreaking havoc on the desert. Ben-Gurion sent a command car and military Jeep with a mounted machine gun to pick up his guests. After a pleasant day, Ben-Gurion said to Herman Wouk: "You must return here to live. This is the only place for Jews like you. Here, you will be free."
Wouk responded incredulously, "Free? With enemies ringing around you, with their leaders publicly threatening to wipe out the Zionist entity, with your roads impassable after sundown — free?"
To which Ben-Gurion said: "I did not say safe. I said free."
'You Will Teach Them'
I don't know if Ben-Gurion was alluding to a rabbinic teaching in the Ethics of the Fathers, but let's learn it nonetheless. The rabbis notice that the Hebrew word for freedom, cheirut, and the word for engraved, charut, is the same. They are spelled with the same four Hebrew letters, each with a slight vowel change.
Never missing an opportunity to provoke thought, the sages expound: "One is only truly free if the words of Torah and Tradition are engraved on one's heart."
Journey back with me. It is now erev liberation, the eve of redemption. Moses assembles his people. He needs to address them, as they are on the threshold of redemption and on the cusp of nation formation.
What would you say if you had but one moment to spend with the entire Jewish people? What message would be so crucial and transformative that you would deliver, even better, that you would want to engrave on their hearts and psyches?
Moses could have spoken of the discomfiture and downfall of this arrogant regime in Egypt — and he would have been forgiven for having done so. He could have spoken to his people about the tragic death of Egypt's first born and of the stunning salvation of Israel's firstborn — and, given the context, perhaps would have been justified. Moses could have spoken to his people about the nature of the Promised Land to which they were journeying — and would have been vindicated in this decision.
Instead, he speaks about the next generation and education: "When your child will approach you and ask, this you will teach them." In fact, he does so no less than three times in his oration.
It is the Jewish narrative that must be engraved on our hearts. It is our shared sacred story that must cause our hearts to palpitate with meaning and purpose. It is the values and heritage of our people that must quicken our hearts. And it is our sacred duty to teach this to our children, and they to theirs. In so doing, we can truly declare, "Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.