Liberating the human spirit
“Freedom is a fragile thing. It must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people.” As Jews, these words of Ronald Reagan, delivered at his inaugural address as governor of California in 1967, resonate deeply. We’re a nation born in slavery, liberated by G-d.
And the struggle for freedom isn’t over, and certainly not something we can take for granted, as modern autocratic states like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran demonstrate. On Pesach, we celebrate the gift of political freedom. And we recognise that more than just a natural right, it’s a divine gift, one that we would be lost without.
The founding fathers of the United States understood this. In drafting the US Constitution, the foundation of modern constitutional democracy, as men of faith, they were influenced profoundly by the Exodus, and saw freedom as a right granted by G-d rather than at the behest of any government.
Political freedom is the cornerstone blessing of post-apartheid South Africa – entrenched by a supreme Constitution, respected by the overwhelming majority of our country’s citizens; an unshakeable pillar that has weathered many political storms over the past three decades.
But freedom is more than something merely enshrined in law. We learn this from the connection between Pesach and Shabbat. The Ten Commandments explicitly makes the link: “Keep Shabbat and remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” The message is clear – Shabbat is a day of freedom. And it teaches us to broaden our understanding of freedom to appreciate that freedom isn’t only political – however vital that may be – but personal.
Personal – or emotional – freedom is deeper than not doing work, as we learn from this verse: “Six days you shall labour and accomplish all your work, and the seventh day is Shabbat.” Note the implication that you can actually “accomplish all your work” in just six days, which we know is a physical impossibility! The Midrash explains this verse to mean that when Shabbat arrives, we should feel as if we have finished all our work.
This reveals a profound idea about human psychology, one which was pointed out to me by Professor Dan Ariely in our discussions when the Shabbos Project first began. During the week, even when we take a break, the burden of our work still hangs over us. On Shabbat, our mental load is lifted.
There’s no pressure to work and do our chores, simply because we aren’t allowed to. Only when we put everything aside, at G-d’s instruction, can we actually stop working without any guilt. We feel the calm and peace of mind that comes with knowing we can slow down and relax because our work is done. We’re truly free.
But Shabbat teaches us that real freedom goes deeper still. There’s another kind of burden we carry – our disconnection from meaning. Becoming slaves to ambition, consumerism, and materialism drains our lives of happiness and inner peace. We’re so much more than our jobs and the things we own. Shabbat reminds us that our most important accomplishments cannot be touched, measured, or priced.
Around the Shabbat table we remind ourselves what truly matters – our most precious relationships, our connection to our Creator, our values, our purpose. And that’s truly liberating. The most profound human psychological need is to find meaning, and when we lose sight of that, we feel burdened and overwhelmed. The divine soul within each of us drives us to seek meaning and purpose, to live a life that goes beyond mere survival for its own sake.
And so, the path to a more meaningful Pesach experience – to true freedom – runs through Shabbat. When we gather with family and friends at the seder, we thank G-d wholeheartedly for giving us the gift of freedom 3 335 years ago, this year. We tell ourselves and our children that this isn’t something to take for granted. As we read the haggadah, we remind ourselves and our children of how G-d liberated us not just physically, but – in taking us directly from Egypt to Sinai – spiritually.
The night is saturated with inspiration and wisdom, with connection to G-d, and to each other. It’s a night of resplendent freedom in all its dimensions – political, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. We celebrate and embrace the blessings of freedom given to us by our Creator – overflowing with gratitude for, in the beautifully succinct words of the haggadah, “our redemption and the liberation of our souls”.
- Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein is the chief rabbi of South Africa.