March 2018, Pesach

Dear friends,

There can be no doubt that my favourite Chag is Pesach not just because I speak incessantly about it but because it is also the foundation upon which everything else rests. Without Pesach there is no Shavuot when we receive the Torah which took place seven weeks after exodus; so there is no such thing as Sukkot celebrating our time in the desert which followed, no Shmini Atzeret as the after-party, and no Simchat Torah for obvious reasons. There is no Rosh Hashana for we have broken no commitments and no Yom Kippur when we are granted atonement for the Sin of the Golden Calf which never happens. Shabbat, arguably our greatest gift, which frees every organic organism, makes no sense whatsoever without Pesach since we ourselves are still slaves in Egypt.

Furthermore, according to the findings of the Gen17 survey which were released in the past week, our community comes together on Pesach in a display of their Jewish identity, more than any other occasion in the year! Indeed, Pesach is the festival that every human being is able to connect with since it represents the most basic universal human drive – freedom. It, therefore, evokes the most intense passion which is why arguably some of the greatest music ever recorded can be tied to experiences of slavery. The plight for freedom is also the most common reason for going to war and freedom is the reason why people are willing to put their lives at risk by fleeing to a safer country illegally in boats.
The question we can ask ourselves is why we risk our basic survival for the promise of freedom? Is it not a fundamental understanding of biology that every living organism evolves to be best suited to its environment to enable it to obtain nourishment and sex? One would think, therefore, that human beings should be fine with being slaves so long as they have enough to eat, a place to sleep, and a mate to indulge with.

The answer of course is that human beings are not just biological entities; we are spiritual ones too. It is the spiritual needs of a human being that renders slavery the worst human crime; something worth risking our very lives to avoid.
How then do we lucky citizens of the world, who are from the freest people on earth, connect with the idea of freedom? Why in fact should it resonate at all if we are not even remotely ever confronted with it in our day-to-day lives?

My usual response would be empathy. We connect with the idea of the suffering of our forefathers by doing everything in our power to negate such an outcome for others today. It is the source of inspiration for all Jewish organisations whose mission is to make the world a better place by taking care of the most underprivileged they encounter.

If this is the only lesson we take away from Pesach, Dayeinu! In fact, if it didn’t come from the Pesach story but rather because of an immersion retreat in the Blue Mountains listening to Bob Marley, that’s good too. The main thing is to be inspired to alleviate suffering in the world and promote happiness as much as we can.

But there is another avenue to express our deep-felt connection with freedom which resonates with me at the core of my personal identity. Emancipation from mental, emotional, and psychological slavery.

There is a beautiful Chasidic teaching on the words of the Haggadah that states that in every generation one must see oneself as if they themselves were freed from Egypt. The question is how? How can I put myself in the shoes of those who were freed 3250 years ago from a 400-year slavery ordeal?

One answer would be to watch a lot of documentaries on recent and current examples of slavery and through that to connect with the plight of our forefathers and use that whole experience to eradicate slavery in all its modern manifestations. As we say, to this we would proclaim Dayeinu.

But Chassidic thought, based on Kabbalistic teachings, explains that the Hebrew word for Mitzrayim, meaning Egypt, comes from the root word of ‘Meitzar’ which incorporates connotations of narrow, limitation, restriction, and constraint. Leaving Mitzrayim then is to leave our spiritual constraints; our narrow-minded ideas, our fears, and our insecurities.
And this is what resonates so deeply for me. The pathway to spiritual enlightenment is breaking the shackles of our intellectual prisons. Whereas physical bondage requires a huge number of external factors we have no control over to work out for us, emancipation from mental slavery in the words of Rabbi Bob in his sermon on Exodus, ‘none but ourselves can free our mind’- that is, it is entirely in our hands.

The jailer of our minds and hearts is dogma. As John Stuart Mill, one of my favourite writers and philosophers of all time, says dogma, even if it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is a dead truth. Of course in the best case scenario the dogma you have been taught is the whole truth just taught dogmatically, but even then it has no spiritual worth because nothing has grown or developed as a result; consciousness has not expanded as a result and, therefore, it is dead and of no importance.

But the reality is that dogma is never a representation of the truth. If it was you wouldn’t need to teach it dogmatically. If there is so much evidence for the position one wouldn’t require submission to authority to get the point across. Dogma then is simply the sum total of human insecurity through the ages wrapped up in a claustrophobic package whose only redemption is as a catalyst for breaking free.

This year I think this sublime message of Pesach will be easier for me to bring into practice since it will be in the middle of Pesach that in Perth I will climb aboard the Dreamliner to the Promised Land to commence a four-month sabbatical in Israel. Like the Jews wandering the desert for 40 years (which to me never quite sounded like a punishment since they were miraculously clothed, fed, and taken care of) this four-month journey with the people I love most in my life is going to be the greatest rejuvenating experience of our lives as a family.

This is not to say that I will for one second forget my wider family at Ark Centre. Rather, through this experience which will enable me to be a better husband and father, I will grow as a human being and therefore come back even more invigorated.

For those of you who will be in Shule this week, and for the 110 people participating in second night Seder, I’ll withhold my goodbyes. To the rest of you dear friends, Lisa, Noam, Osher, and I, will miss you very much but will be back very soon. Try and miss us too, just a little, even though you’ll be in the most capable and inspiring hands of Rabbi Gabi and the rest of the team at Ark!

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur