Passover always makes me wonder whether life is meant to be hard. This thought starts rearing its head often before Purim, when those who take seriously the mission of spring cleaning are already on schedules of windows, curtain, light fixtures, and the drawers in the corner of the closet that have not been touched since last year. The call of disciplined labor continues in increasing volume until the days immediately before the holiday when you can measure the stress levels of passersby by the bags under the eyes and the bags hanging off the wrists. As my friend Nehama Zibitt Blumenreich wrote on Facebook, “Tell me how we got from a celebration of freedom to indentured servitude.” Our culture is almost saying, you haven’t really marked Passover unless you’ve actually suffered.
This nagging thought about the place of suffering in our human mission found expression in a discussion I had with my children the other day about matzo. I asked them whether the matzo represents slavery or freedom. After all, in various places in the Torah, matzo is described as the food we ate while we were slaves in Egypt, and alternatively as the food we ate when we were escaping hastily with barely the clothes — and bread — on our backs. So which one is it?
If matzo represents need, then we’re saying that our ideal life is one of comfort and ease, a nice warm French baguette, metaphorically speaking, that fills your nostrils and your stomach with its expansive softness. But if matzo represents freedom — a freedom from the bloated puffiness of materialism, a life with all excess and extravagance removed — then the ideal life is one of simplicity rather than comfort and pleasure.
Judaism seems to come with an unrelenting norm that if you haven’t struggled, you don’t deserve ease. Luxury is guilt-inducing in Judaism. I would venture that the women who forego Pesach preparations in favor of, say, taking a cruise, have had to fight that voice at some point in their lives, the voice that says that their Jewish practice is less authentic because they didn’t suffer like everyone else.
This thought about suffering as more legitimate finds particular expression in Israeli culture in a myriad of ways. From appallingly low salaries that expect people to somehow deal with it, to educational practices that expect 6-year olds to be completely self-reliant (in fact the 10-year-olds are the crossing guards), to the paucity of effective road signs (after all, don’t want to pamper drivers and make them soft), to the strategic placement of squeegees in motel rooms (because of course guests will mop their own floors), the message is one of toughness and self-reliance.
Americans walk into offices and stores expecting someone to approach them and serve them. But Israelis look down at this kind of expectation, referring to “Americans” as “spoiled Americans” often in one breath, and consider the idea of smiling at a customer to be an inconvenient and intrusive imposition. In Israeli culture, everyone is simply expected to struggle.
So what exactly is freedom? Is it about breaking free from all the expectations and going to, say, Italy for the holiday? Is it claiming the right to make a decent living (even if one’s remuneration comes from, say, public coffers, a model that seems to be growing in popularity)? Or is freedom about accepting one’s lot in life, living simply in small quarters off of miniscule salaries and consuming less — living off of matzo, literally and metaphorically?
I think that the answer is somewhere in between. As opposed to American culture, which tends to equate a good life with having more stuff, I do not think that freedom is about excess. The message of the matzo, the manna, and the desert is indeed about living with less, and building a society around communal ethics and values rather than around capitalism and competition. But I think there is a way to seek out ease without feeling guilty, and without having to buy endless things.
The challenge, I believe, is in redefining work and freedom. Work is not about acquisition, and freedom is not about an absence of work. Yes, labor is valiant, but only a certain type of work — the work not of managing our stuff, but of managing our minds. The effort is in letting go of fears and anxieties that drive us to make bad decisions, the kinds of decisions in which people get hurt. The struggle is not against dirt, and it is not about spending a month before the holiday trying to fulfill social expectations. Rather, the struggle is against the dirt in our souls — the jealousy, competition, and an incessant need for social approval. Freedom is about releasing the bonds of conformity, releasing the view of other people as competitors and replacing it with an understanding of others as partners in building a better world. It shouldn’t matter how many crumbs are left behind the bookshelf, or how fancy the cutlery is. It also shouldn’t matter whether we host 30 people or have a simple meal with a few people we love. It’s about learning to live in the present, with what is, in joy and compassion in abundance. And mostly, it’s about helping to build a society in which everyone has equal access to that joy and kindness.
Pesach should be about clearing out the excess baggage in our spirits and the thoughts that keep us chained to unhealthy ideas and practices. I believe that if we work towards this kind of freedom for all of society, then life can become truly liberated.