How Passover Defines 'Freedom'

Being in the midst of the Passover season, I thought it might be worthwhile to share one of the thoughts from the Zarmi family seder this year.

The central theme of Passover — the Exodus of Israel from Egyptian bondage — has inspired the world around us. Benjamin Franklin reportedly proposed the Exodus for the Great Seal of the United States, and the impact the story had on slaves in the South is well-known, recorded in the words of the spiritual “Let My People Go.”

So it is striking that, at what may be the climax of the seder’s re-telling of the Exodus, we encounter these words: “Bechol dor vador chayyav adam lir’oth eth ‘atzmo ke’illu hu yatza miMitzrayim. … Lefichach anachnu chayyavim lehodoth … lemi she‘asa la’avotheinu velanu eth kol hanissim ha’ellu, hotzi’anu me‘avduth lecheiruth.” In translation:

In each and every generation, a person is required to see himself as if he has come out from Egypt … Therefore, we are required to thank … Him Who did for our fathers and for us all these miracles: He brought us out from slavery to freedom.

So there are two words translatable to “freedom” in the Holy Language, cheiturh (used here) and chofesh. What exactly is the difference?

Chofesh implies a freedom from any duties or constraints, for which reason it is often used in modern Hebrew to mean “vacation.” It also occurs in the Israeli national anthem, Hatiqva (“The Hope”), whose author expressed the longing “lihyoth ‘am chofshi be’artzenu” (“to be a free people in our land”).

But that is clearly not what is being celebrated at Passover, the true national liberation of the Jewish people. Israel’s path out of Egypt, out from under the Egyptian lash, led to the foot of Sinai and the acceptance of the Torah — with its 613 individual commandments. Far from being free of restrictions or constraints, Israel embarked on a life of service to the Almighty on both an individual and a national scale. 

So what is cheiruth, really?

It appears to be derived from a primal root with a meaning of “emptiness” (whence the word chor, “hole”), but the first and second derivative roots also convey a sense of “heat” or “ardor,” with both negative and positive connotations.

We find the word used in another place (Avoth VI, 2), which quotes Exodus XXXII, 16:

And the writing was the writing of G-d engraved [charuth] on the tablets.

It proceeds to pun:

[R]ead not charuth but cheiruth, for none is free save one who is occupied in Torah-study.

So this is the “freedom” to which the Jewish people were brought: From servitude to flesh and blood masters, to the service of G-d Almighty. This freedom is not the absence of constraints and restrictions, but the assumption of new, sublime ones.

What a perfect word to use for this concept — a word connoting the emptying out of Egyptian materialism to be replaced by ardor for the Torah.

That is what we are celebrating at the Passover seder: The true freedom of service to the Almighty. Our ancestors won this through a tremendous act of moral courage when they slaughtered the Egyptian creator god (whose avatar was the ram) before the eyes of the Egyptians, and spread its blood on the doorposts of their houses.