We find ourselves in the Hebrew month of Adar II, which includes Purim and precedes Pesach. These two holidays share a common theme as they both celebrate liberation and freedom from our oppressors. In fact, we specifically celebrate Purim in Adar II (this year being a leap year when we have two months of Adar) so that we keep the two holidays close to each other as they share that common theme.
Liberation and freedom are something we really identify with as Canadian Jews living in the modern age. We are steeped in freedom. We have the liberty to integrate within our society and we enjoy all of the rights and opportunities that are equally available to all Canadian citizens. We are free to practise our Judaism openly and we don’t have to deal with the persecution and poverty that many of our grandparents faced in Europe. This great gift of freedom, however, has also brought the greatest challenge for the North American Jew. The free world has opened up the possibility for the Jew to choose whether or not to identify as a Jew. Jewishness has gone from being destiny to being a conscious choice.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, put it, “Previously, Jewish identity had been a total one, a matter of dress and speech, manners and mannerisms.”
“Tradition,” sung by Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, confirms the shtetl Jew didn’t have to make too many choices. Being born a Jew meant it was automatically all-encompassing. Today, however, with the gift of freedom, we can make a personal choice about whether or not we would like to participate in the Jewish community and engage Jewishly. This was clearly illustrated in the results of the recent Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews.
There is a positive side to this freedom of choice though. God created us with the ability to make choices so that we can achieve things on our own. Our choices create the world we live in. When our choices and actions are mindful of our Jewishness and God’s values, we become transformed personally and we transform the world around us into a more Godly place.
The Baal Shem Tov once said, “True service of God is achieved only when we motivate ourselves.” The power of devoting ourselves to something without coercion is that it becomes more precious to us and we are transformed as a result.
This is the power of the modern world. In the shtetl, there was little we could choose about our lives. There were many things that were determined by our family background and our little close-knit Jewish community. Our engagement with Jewish life was a given. You dressed differently, you spoke differently, you conducted business differently, and this is who you were.
Compare that with today’s world, where our choices in all areas of life are endless. Today, when we choose to live Jewishly, our choices are so much more meaningful and powerful, because they are really our choice. Because our choices to live Jewishly today are freely generated without coercion, our Jewish identity becomes more precious to us. When we engage Jewishly today, it is an ultimate statement of our love and commitment to being a Jew.
As we prepare to celebrate the festival of freedom, let’s embrace the power of this freedom and choose to add one new element of Jewish tradition to our Pesach celebration, thereby making this Pesach a transformative experience for our families and our Jewish community. Wishing you all a Kosher and Happy Pesach!