Pesach – Z’man Cheiruteinu – The Season of our Liberation – Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah. SJN, April 2017
Each year at Pesach we recall the liberation of our ancestors from slavery. But we don’t just remember the Exodus once a year. The daily evening and morning services include the g’ulah blessing that celebrates our ancestors’ ‘redemption’. It is also significant that Shabbat is, both, a day for ceasing from work and a day of freedom. While the first version of the Shabbat commandment (Yitro, Exodus 20:8-11) tells us that we should observe Shabbat ‘because in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth and sea – and all that is in them – and then rested on the seventh day’ (20:11), the second (Va-etchannan, Deuteronomy chapter 5:12-15) declares: ‘Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Eternal your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Eternal your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day’ (5:15).
But Shabbat is more than a memory aid. When we read the two versions of the Shabbat commandment, we are reminded that Shabbat is for everyone now: ‘The seventh day is a Sabbath of the Eternal your God; you should not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female servant, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female servant may rest as you do’ (Deut. 5:14). Significantly, prior to the revolutionary innovation of Shabbat, society was divided between the powerful, who had endless leisure, and those enslaved to endless labour.
As Jews, we are privileged to be heirs to such wonderful teachings that offer us guidelines for our lives. But are the lessons of Pesach and Shabbat only for us? As we look around the world today, we see that many millions remain in slavery. The reason why, for example, we are able to buy our clothes at such low prices is because they have been made by slave workers – many of them children – in other parts of the globe. Surely, we cannot enjoy the gifts of rest and freedom, knowing that so many live in chains?
On Yom Kippur morning, across all the denominations of Jewish life, we read as the haftarah, the passage from Isaiah chapter 58 that reminds us that fasting is not an end in itself, but rather that the sacred day that completes the ten-day period of repentance, serves as preparation for our lives in the year ahead. The prophet proclaims (58:6-7): ‘Is not this is the fast that I have chosen? To loosen the chains of wickedness, to untie the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house?’ Perhaps, we should also read these verses at the end of Pesach, when we eat the last pieces of matzah – the bread, both, of affliction and freedom. Perhaps, then we would realise that the purpose of our observance of the festival is two-fold: to remember that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and to inspire us to commit ourselves to playing our part in helping to liberate all those who are still enslaved.