Zeman Cheruteinu – the Season of our Freedom,
the Season of our Liberation
Pesach has always been my favourite Jewish holiday. Not so much the eating of matzah but certainly the seder! It is a very homely chag, for unlike other Jewish holidays, the high point of the festival takes place in people’s homes, when Jews across the world gather with family, friends and strangers around their dining tables to conduct a seder. Each of these is a unique celebration, a ceremony which evolved through the generations in each family.
But despite this homely aspect of the chag, Pesach is one of the Jewish festivals which has great universal significance. Pesach is known as Zeman Cheruteinu – the season of our freedom or liberation. Freedom and liberation are probably the most important themes of the festival of Pesach. Many of us will use the seder and the preparation leading up to it as an opportunity to reflect upon examples in our current world of human beings being denied their freedom.
In last year’s sermon for Shabbat Haggadol, I spoke about two specific examples: the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who at the time had been held captive for five years, and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who had been disappeared by the Chinese regime because of his outspoken criticism against the ongoing oppression in his home country. It feels like somewhat of a miracle to know that both of them are free this year. And even though this gives us great reason to rejoice this Pesach, we must not forget that totalitarian regimes still flourish around the globe and that modern day slavery is not restricted to third world countries but exists right on our doorsteps in London.
Zeman Cheruteinu – the season of our freedom! There is much more which we could and should say about freedom and the lack thereof in our world. Still, this year, I would like us to think about the theme of liberation in a wider sense. On Pesach, we generally focus on the physical liberation of Israel from the oppressive rule of the Egyptian Pharaoh. But the Pesach story is also the archetypal story of our spiritual liberation, of redemption. God redeemed us from Egypt – this is the grounds for our hope that eventually God will bring ultimate redemption; that the Messianic Age is not beyond reach.
During the seder, we make reference to this as we fill an extra glass of wine for Elijah. According to Malachi’s prophesy, which we read as the Haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, Elijah is God’s messenger, who will arrive to announce that ultimate redemption is imminent.
But what will the time of ultimate redemption look like? Christian eschatology – the doctrine of the last things – paints a colourful picture. But in Judaism we are left with a white canvas sprayed with only a few splatters of colour. And, as is true for all interesting questions in Judaism, it is difficult to give one straight answer as to the Jewish view.
Instead, we see two nearly opposing trends, which are represented by the most influential Talmudic sages of the third century of the Common Era. Rav, the founder of the famous academy at Sura, conceives of redemption in very universal terms. This is expressed, for example, in the Aleinu, which is traditionally attributed to Rav: the Messianic Age is a time when all human beings accept God’s reign so that goodness shall dominate. Even though Rav’s vision does not present a detailed picture of the Messianic Age, he suggests that it will be a time when goodness trumps evil and Jews and non-Jews alike will benefit – a time of spiritual liberation.
On the other hand, Rav’s colleague and rival, Shmuel, focuses solely on the Jews. He taught that the only difference between the present time and the messianic age is that in the messianic age Israel will no longer be subjugated by foreign empires. Shmuel’s message is neither universal nor does it offer much to hope for. His idea of redemption focuses on the political liberation of the Jews. This political view of redemption finds expression in the phrase which is often applied to the modern State of Israel as “reshit tzmichat ge’ulatenu” – the beginning of the flowering of our redemption. This phrase, embraced in many progressive liturgies as part of the Birkat Hamazon – the grace after meals, has always made me feel uncomfortable.
Of course, there are all the political questions that arise when we denote the State of Israel as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.” The State of Israel, which despite all the good that has emerged from it and continues to do so, still suffers from human frailty. But more fundamentally, what are we saying about the value of redemption if we limit it to the political dimension?
Is this really enough? Is this vision of the Messianic Age compelling enough for us to want to work towards it? My personal answer is no! Surely it can’t be enough. Political freedom in our western world is relatively easy to come by; probably most of us here today would describe ourselves as politically free. It is an important step but it is my hope that it will not be the end of the road to redemption. For me, true redemption cannot be limited to political self-interest but must present a vision of universal spiritual redemption as well.
It doesn’t matter so much what the Messianic Age actually looks like. What really matters is that it presents us with a hope. But this hope must not be passive hope – we must not sit around and wait patiently for the Messianic Age to come by itself. Instead it must be an active hope to be true partners with God in working towards the time of ultimate redemption. Because, as Rabbi John Rayner, z’’l, put it: “we could behave decently, we could love our fellowmen, we could live at peace with one another, we could bring about the Messianic Age, if we really wanted to.”
For who knows, maybe this is what the Messianic Age looks like: a time when each human being has embraced his or her responsibility in making redemption a reality today, not tomorrow or in the distant future.
Zeman Cheruteinu – the season of our liberation! Let us use this Pesach as an opportunity to renew our commitment to the sacred task of bringing about the Messianic Age of universal justice, love and peace.
Ken yehi ratzon – May this be God’s will.
1I am indebted to Rabbi John D. Rayner z’’l, whose sermons gave me great inspiration for this sermon
2 See bBerachot 34b.
3 John D. Rayner “Man can do Anything – Almost,” unpublished sermon delivered at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue on 12 March 1977, p.4-5.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.