Sunday, 29 January 2012

Z'man Cheiruseinu: An Independence Day Celebration?

by Twerski, Rabbi Dr. Avraham (See all authors)

I learned much from working with an addicted population.

I know how you celebrate an Independence Day. Parades, picnics, hot-dogs, patriotic speeches, and fireworks-that's it. Whoever heard of an Independence Day that lasts a week, and for which you must prepare weeks in advance, cleaning the house and sterilizing the kitchen as if it were an operating room? That's a bit of an overkill for an Independence Day, isn't it?

Oh, well. Jews like to do things differently. But then, every Friday night we say in Kiddush that Shabbat is in commemoration of our deliverance from Egypt. We don't invoke July 4 every week!

But we're not finished yet. Tefillin and tzitzis are in commemoration of our deliverance from Egypt. Now it's a daily thing! In fact, many other mitzvos are in commemoration of our deliverance from Egypt. We must concede that as an Independence Day celebration, this is a bit much.

I came to the realization of what zman cheiruseinu is all about when a young man who was recovering from years of heavy drug addiction attended his father's seder. When his father began reciting the Haggadah, "Avadim hayinu," we were slaves to Pharaoh, the son interrupted him. "Abba," he said, "can you truthfully say that you yourself was a slave? I can tell you what it means to be a slave. All those years that I was on drugs, I was enslaved by drugs. I had no freedom. I did things that I never thought I was capable of doing, but I had no choice. The drugs demanded it, and I had to do it. Today I am a free person."

When the young man related this to me, Passover suddenly took on an entirely new meaning. Yes, we can be slaves to a tyrannical ruler. But we can also be slaves to drugs, to alcohol, to cigarettes, to food, to lust or to gambling. Any time we lose control of our behavior, we are slaves. If we are not in control of our anger, we are slaves to anger. People who cannot detach themselves from the office are slaves to it. A person can be a slave to making money or to pursuing acclaim. These are enslavements that are no less ruthless than being slaves to Pharaoh. We may surrender our precious freedom and allow our drives and impulses to exercise a tyrannical rule over us.

It is now clear what zman cheiruseinu is all about. It is much more than political independence, and we can see why we are reminded of this not only during the week of Passover, but every Friday night and even multiple times during each day. We are at all times at risk of surrendering our precious independence and allowing ourselves to become enslaved.

Make no mistake. A slave cannot exercise proper judgment and has no free choice. A person who wants to live and knows that cigarettes can kill him but is unable to stop smoking is a slave, and this is true of many behaviors which we may not consider addictions. Our thinking becomes distorted, as I explained in Addictive Thinking, and we rationalize our self-destructive behavior.

The young man's comment to his father's reading of the Haggadah stimulate me to write a commentary, the Haggadah From Bondage to Freedom, in which I pointed out that far from bring a narrative of an historical event, the Haggadah is a text of identifying our addictive behaviors and a guideline on how to break loose from these enslavements and be free people.

Animals are not free. They can not make a choice between right and wrong. They must do what their body desires. The uniqueness of man is that we are free to choose how to act. "Give me liberty or give me death" is more than a patriotic declaration. To the degree that we lose our freedom to choose, to that degree an element of our humanity dies.

The teaching of Passover is to cherish freedom and not to submit to tyranny, even to the tyranny within ourselves.