Are We Free? Ask Big Questions Passover Activity

Haggadah Section: Commentary / Readings

Think for a moment about the word freedom. What comes to mind?

We might think about politics in our own country, political movements overseas, or struggles for freedom from our own history. We might think of freedom of conscience, freedom of movement, freedom of speech. Or we might think of freedoms on a more immediate level: freedom to move our bodies without pain, freedom to love who we want, or the freedom to discipline ourselves through commitments to people and ideas.

As they have for thousands of years, families, friends, neighbors, and strangers will gather for Passover seders to write the next chapter in an eternal conversation about the question, Are we free?

With Passover in mind, we invite you to read two very different answers to the question below and then discuss it with your friends and family. The first essay is by Ruth Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service. The second essay is by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.

We invite you to read the essays below, and then discuss:
1) Which approach do you connect with? Why?
2) If you could change one thing about each view, what would it be?
3) Do the essays help you come to any new insights about your own freedom?
4) What is one thing you can do in the next 24 hours to act on something you discovered in reflecting on these essays?
5) What could we do together to improve our community based on what we’ve talked about here?

The seder is the longest running symposium on the meaning of freedom in history. For over 2,000 years, families, neighbors, and groups of citizens have gathered together for this uniquely Jewish exploration of universally human questions. The experience of the seder (like all of our learning) should help us achieve a sense of gratitude for what we have, a wider feeling of responsibility for others, and a commitment to act on those sentiments.

For more resources and to join the conversation online, visit


Are We Free?
by Ruth Messinger

This certainly qualifies as a Big Question—one of the biggest—and one that is appropriate to consider as we prepare for P assover. There are two ways in which I want to look at this question, each of which leads me to the conclusion that, as free as most of us may feel from day to day, the answer is: No, we are not yet free.

The first question is: what do we mean by freedom? Do we mean that we are free from the worst wants and forms of oppression, that we are not physically enslaved or without food? Those are freedoms many of us in the so-called developed world enjoy. We do better than that: most of us also enjoy the freedom of speech and the freedom of worship. Our Bill of Rights incorporates these specific freedoms, and most [although not all] decisions of our legislatures and our courts strengthen them.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his famous “Four Freedoms” speech included as essential the freedom of speech and of worship, the freedom from want and then, added to those, the freedom from fear. In this last regard he meant a world-wide reduction of armaments so that no nation would be able to commit an act of aggression against any neighbor anywhere in the world. We know this freedom does not exist, and strikes almost all of us as utopian, unlikely to be realized in our lifetimes.

But—from both an American and a Jewish perspective—this is critical: Roosevelt insisted that each of the freedoms— including freedom from want—needed to exist “everywhere in the world”, a condition which we know is not met. He argued that we are not free when our sisters and brothers elsewhere in this country and throughout the world do not enjoy these same freedoms.

For me, that is essential. I can identify and feel blessed with the freedoms I know I enjoy—that I am free from essential wants, able to speak my mind and proceed through my life not as a slave, with physical pleasures and legal protections. I can, and I do, say that I am free. But when I probe further I realize that my “we” actually includes the peoples of the world, the people Emma Lazarus referenced when she said "Until we are all free, we are none of us free”.

As long as there are many people in the world who live with precisely those wants that do not plague most of us—who experience oppression, go to bed hungry every night, die of illnesses for which there are cures, suffer bigotry and prejudice and lack fundamental human rights—we are not free.

The second question is: do we just define freedom as “freedom of” and “freedom from” or do we recognize another dimension, that of “freedom to”? If we are free of shackles ourselves, if our basic needs are met and we have the right to speak our minds, assert our beliefs and act for social change, is it not our obligation to do so, to use our freedoms to go out and create freedom for others? It is not easy to know how to act on this understanding—to connect with those who are not free, to understand in some real way how their lack of freedom does actually affect us, and to stand up against oppression, poverty and want as they constrict the lives of others. But that is what I believe we must do.

These are precisely the issues raised during the Passover holiday. We gather to celebrate our own freedom, our escape from Pharoah, but then we invoke all who are hungry and invite them to eat. We suggest that we are not free unless we find a way to ensure that they, too, are free from want. We remind ourselves—in this Passover service and throughout our texts—that it is precisely because we know the evils of slavery, the burden of hunger, and the dangers of oppression that we must work to ensure that others are able to realize their own freedom.

What are we obligated to do? We need to look to ourselves, to recognize that we too often play the role of Pharaoh in the lives of others—as individuals by not welcoming those different than ourselves; as a community by not extending ourselves to the impoverished and hungry; as a people by not honoring other cultures and faiths as we would hope to be honored.

We need to find places and ways as Americans and as Jews to work for changes in our government’s policy and practice to create freedom from want, more equality and the expansion of human rights for the enslaved and oppressed people of the world.

We need to do all we can to help make more people more free if we want to claim freedom for ourselves.

Ruth W. Messinger is President of American Jewish World Service (


By Chief Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

What creates freedom? A revolution in the streets? Mass protest? Civil war? A change of government? The ousting of the old guard and its replacement by the new? History, more often than not, shows that hopes raised by such events are often dashed, sooner rather than later. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth about the French revolution, but the mood did not last long. It rarely does. Sometimes all that happens is that the tyranny ofthe minority is replaced by the tyranny of the majority; sometimes not even that. The faces change. The suffering remains.

The books of Exodus and Deuteronomy take a different route altogether. It’s astonishing how, reflecting on the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom, Moses keeps returning to one subject above all others: how we teach our children. “When your children ask you this, you should answer them that.” “Teach your child on that day.” “Say to your child ...” Four times Moses speaks about the duty of parents to educate their children, handing on to them their people’s story until it becomes their own.

That’s what we do each year on Passover as we gather in our extended families to re-enact the night long ago when our ancestors readied themselves to leave Egypt and begin the long walk to freedom. It’s a remarkable ceremony, the oldest continuously observed religious ritual in the world, going back thousands of years. We still eat the matzah, the unleavened “bread of affliction,” and taste the maror, the “bitter herbs” of slavery. And children are still at the heart of this celebration. For we can only tell the story in response to questions asked by a child. That’s why, for many of us, our earliest Jewish memory is of asking the “four questions,” beginning with “Why is this night different?” We remain faithful to Moses’ mandate: first teach the children.

Much has been written since Moses’ day about freedom. Even today it is the key word of politics, especially in those parts of the world under repressive regimes. Still the talk is of politics and power, armies and militias, tactics and strategy, regime change and international intervention. Still we are surprised when the new guard turns out to be as bad as the old guard. The faith religious believers have in God is small compared to the faith people put in politicians, knowing how many times they have been disappointed in the past but still insisting that this time it will be different.

Moses taught us something else entirely. The world we build tomorrow is born in the stories we tell our children today. Politics moves the pieces. Education changes the game. If you want a free society, teach your children what oppression tastes like. Tell them how many miracles it takes to get from here to there. Above all, encourage them to ask questions. Teach them to think for themselves. Get them to continue the heritage not through blind obedience – the world’s worst preparation for liberty – but through active, challenging conversation across the generations. That’s how we learned, as children, about the long walk to freedom. It’s how we came to take our ancestors’ story as our own.

Amid all the talk about the challenges facing the world in the twenty first century – climate change, the global economy, political turmoil, the impact of the new technology – far too little is said or thought about education, and even when it is, it focuses on the wrong things, such as technical skills. Education is the single most important determinant of the future of the human race, and what and how we teach our children is the most important decision we can make.

We have to teach our children that freedom only comes when you respect the freedom of others, that it involves responsibilities as well as rights and that it means making sacrifices for the common good. God, the supreme power, intervened in history long ago to help the supremely powerless, a nation of slaves, and ever since, His work must be ours. Nor can we teach these things without giving children the space to ask, question and challenge, thereby learning the dignity of dissent, itself one of the elements of freedom.

Liberty is born not on the battlefield but in homes, schools and houses of study. That is the message of the world’s oldest ritual, Passover, and its force remains undiminished today.

One of the foremost religious and social thinkers of our day, Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He is the author of numerous books including Celebrating Life, From Optimism to Hope, To Heal a Fractured World and Dignity of Difference, for which he won a Grawemeyer Award in Religion. He can be reached on twitter @chiefrabbi and on facebook.

Note: This piece was first published in The Times in March 2012.



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