Passover - Z’man Cherutainu: the season of our (growing towards) freedom

Passover - Z’man Cherutainu: The Season of Our (growing towards) Freedom
by Maxine Lyons

For many years, I have been uncomfortable with the expression “I wish you a sweet and kosher Passover.” Of course, enjoying a sweet time around our Seder tables is very important, and it is wonderful to be festive and to celebrate with family and friends. But should the importance of having a “kosher” Passover supersede all other goals and intentions for this holiday? 

The Passover story is profoundly meaningful and can inform and enrich our spiritual practices, yet many women confess to being so exhausted from scouring their kitchens to rid them of hametz and from cleaning in every spare moment leading up to the Seders that they do not experience other the meaningful parts of the Seder. The imbalance between so much cleaning and kashering without also spending time preparing for the Seder’s message and meaning creates a missed opportunity. 

Several years ago, I promised myself that for every hour of household preparation I would also put in an hour of study. I wanted to give myself the time and space to feel the lessons and blessings of the holiday—to personalize the ancient Passover story for our contemporary era. 

This year, I focused my reflection on two themes: being a stranger in a strange land and seeking freedom from our own enslavements. The essential story of Passover—of being exiled and of being freed from slavery—is also remembered every Shabbat evening when we repeat the Kiddush. Like Passover, Shabbat evening has become an invitation for me to re-think my personal liberation from my own narrowness toward new expanses. 

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Rabbi Sharon Brous writes in an article, “Defying Despair: Why I Believe,” posted on The Huffington Post, “We are an Exodus people.” People, that is, who are moving from dark to light, from deprivation to freedom. She writes: 

In contrast to the Book of Genesis, the Book of Exodus tells a story of ascent, of redemption. It is a story in which—from depths of darkness—we affirm the possibility of light. A story in which the people who were forced to dwell in the narrowness of Mitzrayim, Egypt, come to embody the expansiveness of human potential. A light unto the nations—a symbol for all time of what is possible... We are an Exodus people. And this dream—the dream of the Exodus, the dream of world of freedom, of hope and possibility—has kept the Jewish people alive and given us the strength to survive years of deprivation and suffering.

Exodus instructs us to take these lessons and apply them not only to ourselves, but also to those around us. Exodus 23:9 instructs: “You shall not oppress a stranger (ger), since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you were also strangers in the land of Egypt.” By ger, the Torah means one who is alien in the place where he lives, not a member of tribe, someone without citizenship status who is, therefore, vulnerable to exploitation. 

Our history gives us an ethical obligation not to oppress others. This teaching has created within me a greater empathy that intensifies my commitment to restore the dignity of others. K’vod habriot, a term used by the Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, means caring for the well-being of the weak and disadvantaged.

Where Exodus commands us not to oppress the stranger (lo ta’aseh, that is, “do not do”), Leviticus moves from the negative commandment to the positive one (aseh, “do”). In short, it takes us from well-meaning to well-doing! Leviticus 19:33-34 reads:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you will not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you will be to you as the native among you, and you will love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

This passage mandates that we see the stranger as our neighbor, and that, just as we love our kin, we are called to extend loving kindness to those who are in need. 

So, how can we realistically stretch our ability to respond both in our intention and in our deliberate actions in order to reach our greatest potential and to offer more possibility and potential to others? 

Erica Brown, in her blog on the My Jewish Learning website, reflects on the teachings of Rachel Naomi Remen, offering:

A stranger is a human construct, not a divine one. We decide to make people close to us or to make them distant. We decide who to let into our world and who to keep away. Sometimes, a stranger is just someone you haven’t said hello to yet. As we edge closer to Passover, the notion of strangers becomes more salient. We begin the Seder welcoming anyone who is hungry.

Invite strangers to your home. Now is the time. We were strangers. We redeem our past when no one is a stranger.

The second theme of my reflection is the challenging transition that occurs when people face freedom from slavery, an experience that the Israelites had when they escaped Egypt. What does becoming a free person mean for me today? The Israelite mentality and long experience of being slaves did not end when Jews left Egypt. The Jews carried the insecurity, dependence and slave identity as they wandered in the desert under Moses’s leadership; their complaints, testings, and fears in this period were signs of the internal legacy of slavery. It took generations to leave the confines of slavery to become a freer people.

On his website RebJeff.com, Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser shares a teaching from his yoga teacher, Natasha Judson, writing: 

“Freedom from” is liberation from confinement and contraction... “Freedom to” is the experience of reaching beyond our present selves to expand the limits of our potential... Where “freedom from” is an act of self-preservation and self-affirmation, “freedom to” is an act of self-discovery and self-transformation. Exercising “freedom from” helps us to feel secure; exercising “freedom to” helps us to feel expansion and joy.

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In my own life, in my local community, I have tried to live by these questions and the lessons I have taken from my study. I have put extra attention to connecting with community members who are in need of extra help. Over the holidays, I reflected on how the stories of two people for whom I serve as a spiritual companion—Nancy and Jerry (their names have been changed here to preserve confidentiality)—have reinforced my experience of what it means to welcome strangers and to support freedom.

I met Nancy at a healing service run by local chaplains. Nancy has been homeless, and she continues to suffer from mental illness. When I met her, she had moved to transitional housing, but she still was very vulnerable. Not part of my familiar world of people who live in their own homes or apartments, Nancy lives in our community as an outsider in many ways, and I could see her as the biblical stranger in a strange land. 

In my work with Nancy, I have also seen the ways in which she is slowly pushing through the imprisoning aspects of her former life with the loving support of well trained chaplains, service providers, volunteers, and friends. She is now beginning to feel that she is exercising the freedom to do positive things for herself and others. Simple things can make big differences: Nancy began to show signs of healthier behavior after I gave her a plant. She told me several times that she felt moments of joy and a small sense of empowerment caring for this small plant that grew and flourished under her diligent care. The power of positive experiences can start to free individuals to heal from the brokenness imposed on them by lifelong negative influences and dire living conditions. 

Jerry, a former inmate, might, like Nancy, be seen as a “stranger” by some in our society, and, also like Nancy, he is steadily becoming more and more free. I met Jerry because he was my pen pal for nine years before he was released from prison. Jerry is now free from the indignities and abuses of incarceration, but he is not yet free to be a reformed, respected person capable of sustaining himself. He lives his daily life feeling the stigma of his imprisonment, which continues to have a stranglehold on him as he seeks housing, work, and new social relationships. Almost everywhere he goes, he is judged and assessed by his past misdeeds as a felon and deprived of a second chance despite his sincere efforts at becoming a true ba’al teshuvah (one who repents) in word and deed. Jerry volunteered to work with homeless individuals, in large part because he knows what it means to be a stranger without a home. He is developing the empathy that a lifetime of dysfunction and poverty did not previously allow. But despite these efforts, he was rejected from the small Jewish community where he is living and has been discouraged from attending services at his local synagogue because of his prison record, never even having the chance to meet the synagogue members and demonstrate to them that he has become a responsible citizen. 

Just as others view Jerry in light of his past, Jerry himself is bound by his own past experiences and by the ways in which he internalized his own negative identity as an offender. I have accompanied Jerry in many ways over the years, listening to his stories, offering alternative ways of responding to the realities of living in the world outside of prison, and providing practical assistance. Through our relationship, I am seeking to affirm the many positive and exemplary life-enriching changes Jerry is trying to make so that he can imagine himself differently. Over the past months, I have begun to notice positive changes in Jerry’s behavior and even the self-reflective language he uses as he becomes more able to imagine himself a stronger and more capable person. I am consciously reminding him that tikvah (hope) is his Jewish inheritance, and that he can persevere as Jews have done throughout our history.

Nancy and Jerry both were strangers who became my friends, and these friendships have enriched not just their lives but also mine. Similarly, as I see Nancy and Jerry find distance from what has previously bound them and achieve greater external and internal forms of freedom, I reflect on the ways in which all of us can move towards greater expansiveness. 

The Jewish tradition teaches us to live in more generous, moral, loving, and expansive ways; our core stories impart important lessons that have the power to create a more just, and indeed more sacred, world. As I haven taken my reflections from the holiday into my everyday life, I have realized that the capacity to approach other people as well as myself with more openness and freedom is an ongoing process. Responding to others and keeping faithful to these teachings can also help us make larger, systemic changes that benefit everyone. Our actions extend from our individual lives to our local, national, and international communities, enabling us to do our share to repair the world as we touch people with caring attention. §


Maxine Lyons lives in Newton with her husband of 38 years and is the proud mother of two loving and talented thirty-somethings. She continues to contribute to tikkun olam (repair of the world) through her interfaith activities and her service to incarcerated and homeless individuals. She enjoys a weekly Buddhist meditation group, gardening, and international folk dancing.