From Exile to Exodus
There was nothing as sweet and exhilarating as the chaos of Erev Pesach in the Chabad House of Rabbi Yosef and Hinda Langer, shluchim of the Rebbe to San Francisco. Every entrance to the house was open, in order to accommodate the extra boxes and packages that overflowed from every corner. The fresh breeze of the Pacific Ocean blew through the open windows and cooled the unusually steamy kitchen down. The lively kitchen which could barely fit twenty people, let alone an entire army of eager helpers, was made all the more busy by the large amount of guests who stopped by throughout the day to drop off wine, hagadas, or simply to lend a helping hand. This was the feeling of freedom, I remember thinking then. This is what it means to feel alive, and ever so free. People laughing, talking and sharing stories over the kitchen table; potato peels and walnut shells were askew in every corner, as were the piles and piles of chicken fat. Everything was in order, everything was perfect. It was the first year that the Langers had accommodated so many guests at their seder inside their own home. Tables and chairs were rented, and by noon of that day, the dining room was transformed into a scene out of a classic movie. Everything was elegantly set up in honor of the holiday of our freedom. I was eleven, and naive enough to believe that I knew what the holiday symbolized. I believed I had the key to the answer of our freedom. This was the answer.
The illusion of understanding was shattered by a five year old boy named Simon. Simon’s family was one of the regulars in the Chabad house. His parents had escaped the Soviet Union. He was the third member of his family to be born outside of the USSR. It was during the Seder. We were seated around the elegantly prepared seder tables in the Langer’s dining room. If my memory serves me correctly, it happened during “Avadim Hayenu.” Rabbi Langer was explaining the importance of what it means to be a free Jew. He spoke about breaking out of one’s personal exile, to break the chains of Golus, and to be proud to be a Jew. He turned to Simon, very exuberantly and said to him “Simon, be proud to be a Jew!” to which Simon very casually replied: “I’m not a Jew, I’m Simon.” The response was met with a strong laughter from everyone in the room. Simon smiled from ear to ear, obviously very proud of himself, though he did not know what for. Rabbi Langer chuckled and said: “Of course you’re a Jew!” to which there was no reply. He quickly moved on with his speech, and the young boy’s comment was soon forgotten, at least for the moment. Simon’s ‘one liner’ became a hit within our community, and years later, people still make references to that night. It was a joke, but the truth could not be more apparent.
It was not until Pesach many years later, sitting around a table with Israeli travelers that had never attended a proper seder in their lives, did I realize the gravity of the young boy’s words. By then, I was eighteen. My family had relocated to Southern California several years before, and started over in a new community. There was a group of Israelis living in our town and working at the local mall that my family became quite friendly with. When Pesach came around, we invited them to join our seder. They knew about Pesach, but only as much as you would know from watching a watered down version of the Seder in a movie or television show. They were shocked when they arrived to find that the seder was not a fifteen minute celebration followed by matza ball soup, but rather, a two to three hour, in depth ordeal. They knew very little about the holiday, and even less about the symbolism and the meaning behind the concept of freedom. Here were people that had more freedom in the world than I would ever come to know of. They were young, careless, fearless and looking to enjoy life in the every and all ways possible. I envied them. What did they know or care of the rules and regulations that I kept as a frum Yid? I envied them, yet I understood that the freedom they had was not real. Limits, within freedom, is what makes you free. Knowing your limits and boundaries does not make you a prisoner. If anything, being aware of your boundaries gives you an extra sense of how much you can achieve within them, instead of running amuck, aimlessly searching for meaning in everything that crosses your path, whether good or bad. I was reminded of Simon’s comment. Living as an observant Jew, to them, meant giving up their freedom, and living a shackled life. How could they not realize that, in fact, the opposite was true?
Pesach, the holiday where we celebrate our freedom from the slavery in Egypt is about so much more than physical freedom. Slavery is just as much a mindset as it is a physical bond. Yes, we left Egypt, but just because our bodies became free, does not mean that our minds did not stay enslaved. Instead of being a slave for others, we became slaves to ourselves. Everything becomes about the pursuit of happiness and freedom. Freedom is found within limits. Sitting around a seder table in San Francisco may have been physically freeing to the naked eye, but what about on a deeper level? We were all Jews there, free from the slavery our ancestors had suffered, but our minds were still enslaved. Freedom is not about having limitless opportunities of self discovery, it is about finding a higher purpose and dedicating yourself and your life’s work to it. That is what I came to understand from the simple comment of a young child; the truth about what it means to be free.