The Cost of Freedom
Passover is our festival of freedom. Every year, the story we tell and the rituals we enact around the Seder table invite us to ask: What is freedom? Who is free? If the answers we find are ambiguous, so much the better. It is well for us to both feel gratitude for the freedoms we have and recognize the freedoms we lack or deny to others. But push even deeper, and Passover contains another message for those who seek it, a message about the ambiguous nature of freedom itself.
I was vividly reminded of this last month as I witnessed three actors unfold the complex narrative and psycho-spiritual webs of The Whipping Man, a play by Matthew Lopez that tells the story of three Jews—two who have been called slaves, one who has been called free—celebrating Passover in the year 5625, April 1865.
Lee has surrendered, the Confederacy is gasping its last breaths, the Civil War has effectively ended, and Lincoln lies dead by an assassin’s bullet: these events provide the backdrop of the most harrowing Seder you will ever witness.1
This is good, and not only because it makes all others look delightful by comparison (including the seemingly endless endurance tests Great-Uncle Izzy used to conduct entirely in Hebrew from the Maxwell House Haggadah, and that one year Aunt Sarah became so angry with Bubbe she stormed out of her own house and refused to attend the Seder she was hosting). It is good because, in addition to reminding us of how incredibly blessed we are not to be living in a burned-out war zone before the advent of modern medicine, it powerfully presents us with important insights that lie at the heart of every Seder: oppression (in any one of its many forms) is brutal and insidious, often ensnaring master as well as slave; and freedom, a heavy responsibility, can be painful, too.
The story of Passover tells of a journey from degradation to dignity:
From bondage to freedom,
From agony to joy,
From mourning to festivity,
From darkness to light,
From servitude to redemption.2
We are meant to rejoice; yet, simultaneously we read, “Now we are all still in bonds. Next year may all be free.”3 Until we achieve the messianic ideal of universal peace, justice, and compassion, until there is freedom and justice everywhere, our freedom, our redemption is always incomplete. As long as we live in a still-broken world, a world still in need of repair, of tikkun, freedom is never free.
Freedom is never free. Caleb, the Confederate soldier who has lost his faith, learns this as he is forced to rely for his very life upon the human kindness of his former slaves. John, Caleb’s slave and playmate from childhood, spiritually stunted by the institution that created him, learns this as truths about his past overpower his desire for material comforts. Simon, the former head house slave who raised both boys and holds all the family secrets except the one that matters to him most, has always known this: freedom is never free.
Freedom is costly and elusive. It demands struggle. What’s more, it shifts. The freedom that beckoned a moment ago may feel like a prison the next. The only way to be truly free, then, is to know one’s self, to know one’s strength—its source, scope, and limits—and to never stray from the path that knowledge lays out for you, however it may wander.
Freedom may not be what you expected. You will not always have it, and when you do, you may not always like it. But freedom—knowing ourselves, and acting on that knowledge—is the only way to redemption. I highly recommend, should you ever have the opportunity, that you attend a performance of The Whipping Man. In the meantime, may your Seder—like Caleb, John and Simon’s, only (I pray) more gently and joyously—bring you one step further along that difficult, lifelong path.
1 General Lee surrendered April 9th; Passover began that year the evening of April 10th, and Lincoln was assassinated April 14th, on the fifth night of Passover. The play is set over the course of 48 hours that include the night of the assassination. It is certainly plausible that circumstances may have prevented many Jews from celebrating the Seder promptly, as the play imagines.
2 Translation from Baskin Haggadah, Revised Edition, CCAR 1994.