Passover is a story about freedom. But what even is freedom? Rabbi Deena breaks it down ahead of Mishkan’s virtual Passover seder. This sermon was originally delivered at the Saturday Morning Shabbat service on April 8th. You can also listen to it in podcast form on the latest Shabbat Replay on Contact Chai or watch it on our YouTube. And if you’re looking for second night plans, join our virtual seder this Saturday.


In the spring of 2018, I worked as a chaplain for people who were recently incarcerated. One week, I was sitting with my weekly Spirituality group at the Wellness Center, an outpatient addiction treatment center where I am doing my prison chaplaincy training. The group got to talking about freedom, a hot topic for people who were recently incarcerated and are on parole.

“What makes you feel free, or not free?” I asked them. 

Many of them chimed in with similar answers — parole stipulations and trouble finding a job make them feel not free, while the ability to choose their sleep schedule, clothing, and food makes them feel free. Then one man, who I’ll call Matthew, piped up. 

“I’m all about freedom. When I first came home, I kept getting up every night at 3am to make myself a sandwich — just because I could. But now, I’m wondering if I will ever really be free. Everywhere I go, I gotta watch out for the cops, because I can get thrown back in jail just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And every time I go on a job interview, I get rejected because of my incarceration history. My family won’t even talk to me because they assume I’m just gonna get thrown in jail any day now. I’m out there trying to be better, trying to do different, and I feel like society is telling me that I’ll never be more than another Black drug dealer, no matter what.”

That, the other men agreed, was a real impediment to freedom, even if they were no longer physically incarcerated. Sure, they could make midnight sandwiches, but they couldn’t make much else for themselves, so they weren’t really free. 

Many of us tell the Passover story as one where Moses, prompted by God, goes to Pharaoh and says, in God’s name, “Let my people go!” and Pharaoh says no, leading to all sorts of plagues followed by a dramatic escape through the sea. But this isn’t exactly true. Moses doesn’t just say, “Let my people go”, he says, in God’s name, “Let my people go so that they may serve me.” Shlach et ami va’yaavduni. The two clauses are important here: shlach et ami — let them go forth and be free from slavery. Va’yaavduni — so they shall be free to sacrifice, to serve God. The root of the word, avad, is the same as Avodah, the biblical idea for both work and worship, which reminds us that good work is a form of worship and worship must be an act of working for a better world. 

Both Moshe’s refrain to Pharaoh and Matthew’s story point to two different types of freedom. There is the freedom from oppression, which Matthew celebrated with his midnight sandwich habit. But there is also a freedom to grow, and change, and pursue our holy purpose. We need both of these types of freedom. We cannot claim freedom when we are under the authority of a nefarious other. But without the freedom to make holy decisions, to act with autonomy and in good relationships with others, we are not truly free.

This feels different from the ways “freedom” gets used in America in 2022, so I googled the word, just to find out how we might have gone from freedom as holy labor to freedom as in, say, “you can’t make me wear a mask but I can tell you what to do with your uterus.” Merriam-Webster, helpfully, defines freedom as “the quality or state of being free,” so I had to look elsewhere. Well, turns out Wikipedia also does definitions:

Freedom is understood as either having the ability to act or change without constraint or to possess the power and resources to fulfill one’s purposes.

Which is exactly what Moshe asked Pharaoh for, and what Matthew identified as lacking in his own freedom. In other words, freedom means freedom from someone else telling you what to do, or freedom means freedom to do what you want. But this is a problem.  

This definition makes it easy to think of freedom as a zero-sum game. This “I have to get as much freedom for myself as possible” approach might make us think that freedom is no one telling us what to do, the license to do what we want, with no restrictions. But of course, we’ve seen myriad ways this self-centered approach to my freedom comes crashing into your freedom. If we view freedom as an existential power struggle, where either I am free from you or you are free from me, then freedom becomes a power struggle. The only ways out of the above paradigm are for one person to oppress another or for us to abandon the game and compromise, for me to willingly sacrifice a fraction of my freedom for you to have yours, and for you to do the same for me.

Which is why the nuance of “va’yaavduni” is so critical. It is in the plural, and the subject is God. The freedom God wanted to lead the Israelites towards was one in which they had to work together for a common purpose. Freedom, in the Passover story, is innately bound up in sacrifice. The point is that we should be sacrificing not to another human who exerts power over us, but sacrificing to the Infinite in the service of building community.

This freedom to serve a higher power is predicated on being free from oppression. Just as it was not enough for Matthew to be free from incarceration but not free to rebuild his life, we cannot be free to act with integrity and intention when we are oppressed. Each time Moses visits Pharaoh and yet again tells Pharaoh, “God says, ‘shlach et ami va’yaavduni” Pharoah says back, “Sure, fine, you can go make sacrifices, but don’t go far and come right back… or Sure, you and Aaron and some of the men can go into the desert and offer sacrifices, just leave your families and belongings here, ok?” And to each of these supposed compromises, Moshe says, “no dice”. The kind of freedom I’m asking for isn’t conditional, and it cannot exist when the people I am trying to build community with are still enslaved and oppressed. We might be able to compromise on the freedoms to pursue a new life, but we cannot compromise on freedom when yours oppresses mine. 

The feminist writer and activist Rita Mae Brown wrote that “A life of reaction is a life of slavery, intellectually and spiritually. One must fight for a life of action, not reaction”. We must feel that we are in control of our lives, free of enslavement and violence and oppression, in order to be able to cede control for the sake of our community. This is the lesson we must learn from Passover, that we are responsible for each other’s freedom, that we must all, individually, believe in and work towards a collective liberation. 

The Mishnah says, and we repeat this at the seder, that each year, each person is obligated to see themselves as if they personally were freed from Egypt. I take this command very seriously, and so each year, I try to engage in the sacred imagination of living at the time of the Exodus. Each year, since I served as a spiritual guide at a place literally called Exodus, I find my sacred imagination of my role in the Passover looks like thinking about Matthew, and the thousands of other people who are not free from the carceral system regardless of whether they sleep in a prison or an apartment. Which is, I think, the point of the Mishnah’s command. What the rabbis of the mishnah want from us is not a particular historical sympathy. We don’t re-enact the exodus story on Passover in the way we re-enact the giving of Torah on Shavuot or the dwelling in huts on Sukkot. The rabbis of the mishnah don’t want us to imagine our journey to freedom by picturing the sea spray splashing on us as we walked between the walls of water. They want us to develop empathy for the emotions of the exodus — from the fear and degradation of slavery, to the awe-insirpring moment of transitioning to another place and another state, and into the expanse of the desert, where we learn what it means to be a nation. In other words, they want us to imagine going from oppression, which makes us look inwards, to sacred community, where we see ourselves as part of a whole.

Freedom, liberation, is an ongoing process, a north star we can and should always be turning to. It plays out on deeply personal levels, like Matthew’s story of freedom from the confines of incarceration and lack of freedom to build a new life, and it plays out on a societal scale, in the ongoing cycles of violence and the slow march towards equal representation. That is exactly the point of the seder — to locate our own personal freedom stories, the ones we live with and the ones we see in the world around us, within the context of a collective and timeless exodus from oppression to liberation. 

So let’s do that, together. 

This week, we mourned the deaths of three young Israelis, shot while they enjoyed a night out. Perhaps you, like me, have been to Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, where they were killed. Perhaps you, too, have been to bars on the very block where they were killed. As I read about the attack, I could taste both my favorite drink at Spicehaus, a bar right next to where two friends were killed, and I could taste my fear about what this escalation of violence will mean for Israelis, and Palestinians. This is kind of oppressive violence, the cyclical revenge and terror that each side inflicts on the other when we think of freedom as a mine or yours competition, makes freedom feel impossible. This oppression of this pattern claimed the lives of young people enjoying a night out, and it will surely continue to be used as the justification for murder and destruction on both sides. We are not free when we expect violence, when we justify killing others because we have seen someone else do it to us. The Passover story must call us to pray for freedom from cycles of violence and oppression. 

This week, we also celebrated a historic first in the United States, when Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black female justice of the Supreme Court. Perhaps you have seen the image floating around the internet, of 115 emojis representing the 115 individuals who have served on the supreme court. 110 of those emojis represent men, only 5 represent women. 112 of those 115 emojis represent white people. Only three people of color have served on the nation’s highest court, in the history of our country. None have presented as anything other than straight, and all were living as the gender they were assigned as birth. Justice Brown Jackson’s confirmation tips, just a little bit, that balance. Seeing her face in newspapers and on television will undoubtedly show other Black women that they are free to pursue the loftiest of dreams. Perhaps it will inspire other leaders to nominate the first gay or trans justice, or the first justice of Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander background. It should give us faith that someday, we will be beyond the firsts. Someday, we will live in a world where all people will be welcomed into positions of power, because we know their presence will help ensure others are free to do the same. 

We hold all of this as we sit down at our seder tables a week from now and tell an ancient story that echoes the story of our modern world. This is how the Passover seder can be both a gratitude practice and a call to action. We are called to feel gratitude for the oppressions we are free from, the choices we get to make to support our own wellbeing. But the Passover story should also fill us with a little bit of fire — the fire of inspiration that we have the freedom to overthrow tyrants and make healthy, holy choices available to all.