Hol Ha-Moed Pesah

Freedom to …..

This is the season of freedom. This week, hundreds of thousands of college students will unloosen the fetters of the chains of their college classes and head for the warm climates of Florida, Texas and Mexico for the annual rite of “Spring Break”. These young people are continuing a cultural tradition that began several thousand years ago in ancient Greece, when a festival called “Anthestreria” began to become popular with young people. This festival was dedicated to Dionysius, the god of wine. For three days young people of ancient Greece would dance, sing and deck themselves with flowers. Young men would compete to see who could drain a cup of wine the fastest. As one writer put it, their goals was to achieve “an altered consciousness, open to the irrational calls of the god of earthly pleasures.” They were celebrating the re-awakening of spring and the season of fertility.  In our country, Fort Lauderdale became the center of Spring Break activity. Yet by 1985, the combination of uncontrolled drinking, drug use, sexually risky behaviors and increased crime led Fort Lauderdale to institute laws that pulled the welcome mat from the entrance to that city to college students during Spring Break. Since, other cities in Florida have welcomed the revelers.

It is also, for us, the season of Passover. Interestingly, the drinking of wine plays an important role in Passover as well. The goal of this drinking, however, is not to achieve an “altered state of consciousness” so we can indulge ourselves.  It is quite the opposite – it is to help to sanctify the moment and imbue it with spiritual significance. We drink the four cups of wine because of the four expressions of redemption that are used in the Torah for the Exodus in Egypt —  I will bring you out from Egypt; I will save you from their oppression; I will redeem you with wonders; I will take you for me as a people. The verse then concludes, “And you shall know that I am the Lord your G-d…..”

These concluding words make the point that freedom was not simply the removal of suffering, the loosening of the fetters of bondage. Freedom points to a higher purpose. The ultimate goal of freedom from slavery to Pharaoh was that the Jewish people should know G-d, that the Jewish people should bring the knowledge of G-d into the world — that we should act in ways that make the world a better place. We were freed from Egyptian bondage so that we are able to accept, as the rabbis taught, “the yoke of the Torah”.

Thus, Passover not only celebrates freedom from the slavery of the past, but also the freedom to worship God in a manner that they had not been able to do in Egypt. As in the Ten Commandments, the opening statement declares that God took the Jewish people out from Egypt  but only in order to lead to the other commandments. Freedom that devolves into self-indulgence is not freedom at all. Freedom without a noble purpose is of little value.

Fortunately, over the last several decades in our country college students have been able to use the freedom offered by their spring breaks in constructive ways.  These are called “alternative spring breaks.” These are structured programs set up to give purpose to the freedom that our students enjoy while away from their classroom work. For example, Hillels on many campuses organize trips in the United States and around the world for college students to engage in social service projects while studying Jewish values. Their day starts each morning with discussing a Jewish value that is relevant to the purpose of the student being there. In one recent trip to Buenos Aires, students worked at a local school for underprivileged children, packed shelves at a food bank and helped distribute medicine at a medical clinic. Our Jewish Federation office in Chicago subsidizes these trips for students attending Illinois colleges and universities. Students from Illinois schools have also traveled to New Orleans, Cuba, and Uruguay, as well as Argentina, to do social service work over spring break.

What is freedom?  The pagan festival of Dionysius and the traditional spring break point to one answer – freedom is the liberation from all restraint. But our experience of liberation from Egypt, and the alternative spring breaks, point to a different answer – freedom is the ability to choose to serve G-d with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.

Shabbat Shalom