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Passover - Freedom and Speech
By Yechezkel Gold
Pesach is the Hebrew name for Passover. It means a jump. When God smote the Egyptian first-born in each house, He "jumped" over the homes of the people of Israel, sparing them. Jumping implies not being bound by one's previous position or status. Used figuratively, it is the existential, intellectual, emotional leap to freedom.
Passover is also about speech. For example, the sages tell us that the syllables of the word Pesach each represent a word in their own right: "Pe" means "mouth" and "sach" means "speaks". The Seder night is the time for telling about the exodus. The text we read is called the Hagadda, meaning literally "the telling", consistent with the explicit commandment "
and you shall tell your son on that day ...". The Torah calls the matzo we eat "lechem oni". The Talmud offers two opinions about its meaning. The translation "bread of affliction" is the opinion most often quoted in English language literature but the other rendering, "bread over which many matters are discussed" has equal validity.
Freedom and speech are two essential Passover themes and, as we shall see, they are closely related. Historically, culturally and intellectually, freedom is one of the cornerstones of Judaism. The Torah, Prophets, and rabbinic writings consider Passover the birth of the Jewish nation: our very existence is intimately bound with freedom. About the sages' expression about the exodus, "eternal freedom", the Maharal of Prague (who made the famous Golem) asks: since the people of Israel have been in bondage or exile much of the time, how can we say that the freedom achieved with the exodus was eternal?" He answers that the freedom God gave us with the exodus was a permanent state of rising above external circumstances.
Historically, the Jews' passionate battles to attain or retain their freedom are outstanding. For example, the Roman Empire had grave difficulty suppressing remarkably bold and successful Jewish insurrections in three different periods, suffering several resounding defeats in Israel despite the Roman overwhelming military superiority.
Culturally, Jews have always insisted on maintaining their religious identity and distinctiveness. From Babylonian times through the medieval era and into modern times, we Jews have zealously guarded our religious and judicial freedom. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi opposed Napoleon's conquests because he foresaw correctly that political emancipation with its distractions and temptations would greatly erode their spiritual freedom. It may come as a surprise to learn that despite deploring the accompanying economic and political restrictions, the Rabbis considered the edicts mandating Jews discriminatory dress and confining their homes to ghettos to be favorable to the Jews because these practices protected their separateness and ability to live the life of inner freedom embodied in the Torah.
In this regard, we point to the teaching in the sixth chapter of the Ethics of the Fathers which states that there is no free man but one involved in Torah study. The Talmud with its commentators continually challenges our assumptions, liberating the mind and personality from facile superficiality and over-embeddedness in any culture's prevailing mode of thought. Jewish mystical literature gives further access to transcendent life, freeing the soul and transfiguring reality by expanding its boundaries infinitely. Torah's intellectual tradition, long sequestered within the Jewish communities, has been partially revealed to the outside in more recent times through the dramatically independent, revolutionary creativity of Jewish thinkers contributing to world culture.
Entering a yeshiva, one sees rows of students in dialogue. Reading a text, they discuss and debate its implications, discovering the rich inner meanings conveyed by verbal nuances. Often the various commentators offer different, conflicting interpretations of the text, each one presenting a somewhat different world view, yet each one consistent with the Torah.
In this regard, we can point to two different functions of speech. One is to elaborate on the words of an idea or of the text, making explicit what was previously hidden behind the words. From this perspective, speech is the end process of some intellectual or spiritual development, the words ultimately determined by the evolution of some cognitive process. If one recognizes the gist of the Talmud's argument, putting it into words adds clarity and definition.
Sometimes though, the inner meaning of the text is unclear. In that case, discussion does not merely reveal the words' implications. Rather, speech evokes - even creates - a new reality. Gradually, through repeating, delineating and circumscribing the words and analyzing their context, new meanings emerge.
In some ways this is similar to forming some scientific theories. For example, experimental evidence about light that did not fit normal, accepted understandings of causality and logic led to creating quantum theory, a new realm of thought. Discovering that light is paradoxically both a particle and a wave has brought new ways of conceptualizing. Similarly, discussing the written elements of a text can elicit new ways of cognition.
Let us recognize that scientific theorizing is not identical with fact. Explanations grow out of some implicit philosophy and ideology even when those intellectual roots are glossed over or denied in order to claim factuality and truth. In science, the ideal is that explanations can be assessed according to their ability to predict other phenomena. However, the reality is that both facts and philosophies tend to be broad and vague, affording both facts and philosophies the flexibility to accommodate each other. Each explanation presents a unique view of reality for us to consider.
The realm of words is still broader. Words can open the gates to spiritual realms not yet dreamt of. They create meanings that can transform life. By opening the mind, they can lead to exciting discoveries.
It is true that by telling a story, the language highlights certain elements of reality and obscures others. A narrative, in order to produce meaning and consistency, ignores what is outside the meaning it wishes to convey. What is worse, the meanings we infer from words may be false. False meanings certainly do have real existence within the infinite spiritual realm of meanings, but they lead to error, bigotry, fanaticism, unhappiness, deceit...
But words also have the ability to expand our horizons, to help us perceive favorably and truly. They can imbue our lives with love, insight, spirit, openness and even eternity. Though our bodies are caught in time, through words our souls perceive eternity and although our minds can only grasp the finite, through words we can live with Infinity. Though causality and circumstance mold the course of external life, our words are free to bring freedom, even to bring God into the world. Though we each occupy our own private world, speech joins us together and allows us to evoke these spiritual realities and share them with others.
Spoken words open these spiritual realities with which our profound, collective inner being resonates exultantly. Passover, the festival of freedom, is the festival of words.
from the March Passover 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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