On Seder night, we celebrate the Jewish People’s birth as a nation and liberation from slavery. The entire night explores the imperative value of freedom and teaches us that freedom is a mode of thinking under all circumstances; it is not handed to us, but it is ours to claim if only we make that choice.
But are we really so free? Quite arguably, did we not simply trade up for a better master, swapping service to Pharaoh for service to God?
The notion of swapping masters ignores a crucial distinction between negative liberty, the freedom from, and positive liberty, the freedom to. Negative liberty means freedom from restrictions placed on you by other people; positive liberty means freedom to control and direct your own life, to consciously make your own choices, create your own purpose, and shape your own life.
The trouble with negative liberty on its own is that inevitably, we are always enslaved to someone or something, even if it’s our own conscious habits or subconscious instincts. Someone with negative liberty can do as they please, like someone on infinite vacation. They may have a good time at first but will eventually become enslaved to some form of addiction, desire, or laziness. They aren’t free; they are lost. True freedom requires positive liberty, taking responsibility for yourself by committing to an idea or purpose, such as a diet and workout regime for good health. However forced it may seem, making those choices is the highest expression of freedom, and you ultimately only stand to benefit in the long run.
The Midrash similarly suggests that not only can freedom exist in the responsibility of service to God, but it is also the only way to ever be truly free. When the Torah says that God carved the Ten Commandments, the Midrash suggests we alternatively read it as liberation through the Ten Commandments – חָרוּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹת / חֵרוּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹת. We earn freedom through the Torah’s framework by assuming responsibility for our lives and destiny. It’s an externally imposed responsibility to be more human, kinder, and more compassionate, but it bestows ultimate positive liberty, freeing us from slavery to our worst inclinations.
The God that rescued the Jewish People from Egypt was the same God that had sent them there in the first place, but it’s not contrived salvation or engineered heroics because God is not gratuitously cruel. It wasn’t Egypt that held the Jews; it was God holding the Jews in Egypt as foretold to Avraham, in response to Avraham’s question how God could promise a destiny to his descendants if, at some point, they would inevitably deviate from Avraham’s example. The Maharal explains God’s answer to mean that the Egypt experience would permanently bind his descendants to the Creator regardless of their mistakes.
R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that God doesn’t just save us from things that hurt us; however bitter the lesson might be to learn, the things that hurt us can also function as instruments of saving us from something, providing pathways to positive liberty. The Jewish People left Egypt with the hard-won experience God had promised Avraham, and with that experience accumulated, the ordeal was complete – בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל. Yet the inverse of that notion is that if they’d had the experience all along, the ordeal would have been redundant and would never have happened. It was only because they had lost their way, forgetting who they were and where they had come from, that they suffered through centuries of slavery as a result. If they had diminished to pagan idolatry like anyone else, it only follows that they were vulnerable; the inescapable conclusion is that Pharaoh could have only ever have enslaved them so they could rediscover what they had lost! The hand that hurts is the same hand that serves to save – שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם. However disturbing this lesson is, it is simultaneously deeply comforting, suggesting that all our pain has deep meaning and significance.
So we never swapped service to Pharaoh for service to God; because we aren’t slaves at all. God offers us positive liberty, the freedom to take control of our lives and realize our fundamental purpose. Accepting the responsibility of service to Goy may look forced. But we know we are the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts because we can utilize our freedom to thrive, tapping into our highest and best selves and making our lives matter. God offers humans positive liberty, and through it, cosmic significance.
Our bodies feel pain in response to an injury; your nerves send millions of signals to your brain that something is wrong, hopefully prompting a reaction. Pain has a clearly defined purpose; the only incorrect response is to ignore it.
We shouldn’t ignore the pain in our national or personal life, but we possess the freedom and spirit to elevate and transform that pain into meaning and purpose. There is cosmic significance to our hurt. It matters.
The God who heals is the same God who hurts; the hurt can be a pathway to healing, like two sides of the same coin.
We’re never glad for the hurt, but we are free to make it count.