“Freedom is a fragile thing… it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people.” As Jews, these words of Ronald Reagan, delivered at his inaugural address as governor of California in 1967, resonate deeply. We are a nation born in slavery, liberated by G-d.
The struggle for freedom is not over, and certainly not something we can take for granted – as modern autocratic states like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran demonstrate. On Pesach, we celebrate the gift of political freedom. And we recognise that more than just a natural right, it is a Divine gift, and one that we would be lost without.
The Founding Fathers of the United States understood this. In drafting the US constitution, the foundation of modern constitutional democracy, as men of faith they were influenced profoundly by the Exodus, and saw freedom as a right granted by G-d rather than at the behest of any government.
Political freedom is the cornerstone blessing of post-apartheid South Africa – entrenched by a supreme constitution, respected by the overwhelming majority of the country’s citizens; an unshakeable pillar that has weathered many political storms over the last three decades.
But freedom is more than something only enshrined in law. We learn this from the connection between Pesach and Shabbat. The Ten Commandments explicitly make the link: “Keep Shabbat and remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” The message is clear – Shabbat is a day of freedom.
And it teaches us to broaden our understanding of freedom. After a few years of researching and writing a book about Shabbat, published this month, I realised that it is so much more than a “day of rest” or a break from work. It is not merely the Jewish weekend. For this reason, and counter-intuitively, I titled my new book “Shabbat. A Day to Create Yourself” because it gives us the opportunity to create the best version of ourselves. And one key component of self-creation is to appreciate that freedom is not only political – however vital that may be – but personal.
Personal – or emotional – freedom is deeper than not doing work, as we learn from this verse: “Six days you shall labour and accomplish all your work, and the seventh day is Shabbat.” Note the implication that you can actually “accomplish all your work” in just six days, which we know is a physical impossibility. The Midrash explains this verse to mean that when Shabbat arrives, we should feel as if we have finished all our work.
This reveals a profound idea about human psychology, one that was pointed out to me by Professor Dan Ariely in our discussions when the Shabbat Project first began. During the week, even when we take a break, the burden of our work still hangs over us. On Shabbat, our mental load is lifted. There is no pressure to work and do our chores – simply because we are not allowed to. Only when we put everything aside, at G-d’s instruction, can we stop working without any guilt. We feel the calm and peace of mind that comes with knowing we can slow down and relax because our work is done. We are truly free.
But Shabbat teaches us that real freedom goes deeper still. There is another kind of burden we carry – our disconnection from meaning. Becoming slaves to ambition, consumerism and materialism drains our lives of happiness and inner peace. We are so much more than our jobs and the things we own. A key idea in my new book is how Shabbat reminds us that our most important accomplishments cannot be touched or measured or priced.
Around the Shabbat table, we remind ourselves what truly matters – our most precious relationships, our connection to our Creator, our values, our purpose. And that is truly liberating. The most profound human psychological need is to find meaning, and when we lose sight of that, we feel burdened and overwhelmed. The Divine soul within each of us drives us to seek meaning and purpose, to live a life that goes beyond mere survival for its own sake.
And so, the path to a more meaningful Pesach experience – to true freedom – runs through Shabbat. When we gather with family and friends at the Seder, we thank G-d wholeheartedly for giving us the gift of freedom 3352 years ago, this year. We tell ourselves and our children that this is not something to take for granted. As we read the Haggadah, we remind ourselves and our children of how G-d liberated us not just physically but in taking us directly from Egypt to Sinai, spiritually.
The night is saturated with inspiration and wisdom, with connection to G-d and to each other. It is a night of resplendent freedom in all its dimensions – political, emotional, psychological and spiritual. We celebrate and embrace the blessings of freedom given to us by our Creator – overflowing with gratitude for, in the beautifully succinct words of the Haggadah, “our redemption and the liberation of our souls”.