The Disciplined Path to Freedom

by | Feb 19, 2004

In his riveting autobiography, “Fear No Evil,” Natan Sharansky recalled one
of the many Passovers he spent in a Soviet prison. When his captors
confiscated the small piece of matzoh a fellow prisoner planned to slip him
in his punishment cell, Sharansky simply used salted sprats as his bitter
herb, a cup of hot water in place of the wine-apple-nut mixture of charoset.
He recited some Psalms he had memorized from the book that he had smuggled
in but which his captors eventually discovered and confiscated.

“I tried to recall everything I could from the Passover Haggadah,” he wrote,
“starting with my favorite lines: ‘In every generation a person should feel
as though he, personally, went out of Egypt. . . Today we are slaves,
tomorrow we shall be free men’.”

Few Jews today can appreciate the sweet taste of freedom at the Passover
seder like Sharansky, who was physically enslaved and often brutalized, but,
through sheer force of will, remained psychologically and spiritually free.

As Jews around the world sit down to the Passover seder this year, they will
commemorate the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt more than 3,500 years
ago. Traditional Jews will conduct their seders using the ancient text of
the Haggadah that Sharanksky recalled from memory while a prisoner.
Undoubtedly, Natan Sharansky will once again read from the complete text as
a free man in Jerusalem, something he has been able to do since his own
personal liberation in 1986 from the Soviet gulag.

But in an effort to make the seder seem more relevant, some Jews have tried
to stamp their own intellectual and political mindsets on the Passover
celebration by creating all manner of new Haggadahs: for vegetarians,
feminists, gays, environmentalists. Ironically, those most likely to create
or use these Haggadahs have enjoyed political freedom their entire lives.

But are these self-styled Haggadahs the pathway to a Jewish spiritual
awakening? In fact, the original Haggadah holds many layers of meaning for
those willing to focus on its words and to plumb its ancient, timeless

Among the Haggadah’s most important messages is that gratitude, humility and
subservience to God have important places in our lives. The Haggadah
(literally, “the telling”) underscores this message in part by the way it
characterizes the leader of the Exodus, Moses himself, whose name is
mentioned only once. The true star of this show is God.

It’s understandable that Jews unacquainted with their own tradition would
try to create a more meaningful seder experience through alternative
Haggadahs, but by rewriting the text, they miss the point. Passover wasn’t
meant to be an expression of do-it-yourself liberationists. In treading the
time-honored path of the Haggadah, Jews open themselves to the possibility
of connecting with a primal spiritual freedom. If even Moses, who split the
sea with a wave of his staff, remains silent in the pages of the Haggadah,
how much more are ordinary men and women meant to ponder the idea that
spiritual freedom lies along the disciplined path that God set out for His
people. The idea may seem ironic, but it is also deeply meaningful.

After more than 200 years of Egyptian bondage, the Jewish exodus was but the
beginning of the birth of the Jewish nation. Only later were our ancestors
psychologically and spiritually ready to receive the Torah, the blueprint
for Jewish living, the guide to infusing every facet of our lives with

With that in mind, the Haggadah becomes far more than a menu of things to
say, to eat and to drink. It becomes a living reminder that freedom requires
discipline. It reminds us too that even today, many of us are still
enslaved to a variety of false gods: money, ego, power, status. With its
quiet lessons in humility and liberation, the Haggadah needs no external or
modern agenda imposed on it to be relevant.

As Natan Sharansky knew even in his darkest days, imprisoned for the crime
of being a Jew longing to live freely in Israel, the Haggadah offers a
guidepost for true, lasting, genuine freedom.


[Judy Gruen is a Los Angeles writer and the author of “Carpool Tunnel
Syndrome: Motherhood as Shuttle Diplomacy” (Heaven Ink Publishing, 2001).]