Pesah 5780

A D’var Torah for Hol HaMoed Pesah
By Rabbi Heidi Hoover

When you were a child, did you ever resent the adults in your life enforcing bedtimes? Did you ever think, “When I’m a grown-up, I’ll be free to do whatever I want, and I’m going to stay up all night!” If you are an adult now, do you ever stay up all night just for fun, just because you can? I’m guessing you probably don’t, or at least not often. There are many ways in which we have more freedom as adults than we do as children, but that doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want. It does mean that it is up to us to learn to discipline ourselves, because as adults there are many ways in which there is no one else who will make sure we make healthy choices.

In this time when so many of us are confined to our homes as much as possible, celebrating Passover feels so strange. It is our festival of freedom, but we are not free to be with our families and friends in person. We are not free to leave our homes. How can we celebrate a festival of freedom?

Like so many of you, I expect, my first- and second-night seders took place on Zoom this year. It was strange, sometimes felt stilted and awkward, and I made a lot less food than usual (I am accustomed to holding a seder in my home for about 30 people). I was a little taken by surprise that I had to feed my family a second festive meal after leading my synagogue community’s second-night seder on Zoom—usually we’re at the synagogue eating the catered meal. Certainly it’s not what I would have chosen, had I had the freedom to choose to be in person with everyone.

When I think about freedom, though, the idea that freedom is being able to do whatever you want is actually a child’s idea of freedom. The Israelites, in the Passover story, go from slavery to freedom. But they are not able to do whatever they want. Almost immediately, they are given the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and they pledge themselves to serve God. They are not free in the sense that no one requires anything of them, that no one is telling them what to do. God is telling them what to do and requiring a great deal from them. Yet we still say that they are free.

What I have learned about freedom this year is that freedom is taking responsibility for your own behavior. It is making choices about how to be healthy and how to be a good person, who to serve and how. We have been told to stay home as much as possible and to wear masks when we must go out. Most of us are complying, and that is a choice we are making. We are using self-discipline in order to try to keep both ourselves and others healthy.

Sometimes restrictions that result in our choosing ways to live that are different than what we are used to lead us to discover freedom in a new way. On Shabbat morning, I held a discussion on Zoom with my synagogue community. I asked people to talk about how their seders were. More than one person said they had never made a seder themselves before—they had always gone to the homes of others and had never felt that they could do it all themselves. This year, the changes to our lives meant that they tried to do it themselves, and found that they could. There was a wonderful sense of empowerment, of growing a little more as a Jew, feeling free to take on a responsibility they never had before.

May we find joy even as we are limited, and may we find new ways of understanding freedom and what it means to be free. Hag Pesah sameah—happy Passover


Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) has taught Conversion at AJR. She is the rabbi of B’ShERT: Beth Shalom v’Emeth Reform Temple in Brooklyn, NY.