By Rabbi Levi Greenberg
Liberty is the core of American life. Patrick Henry’s dramatic speech at the Second Virginia Convention which concluded with, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” is widely credited for setting off the Revolutionary War. Clearly, as Americans, we value our liberty.
The Jewish festival of Passover is a celebration of liberty. Not a liberty one needs to fight for and defend, but a liberty that can never be lost. The Israelites did not fight their way out of Egyptian slavery 3,333 years ago. They were miraculously spirited from there after 210 years of oppressive suffering and that liberty was never compromised since.
True liberty is freedom of the spirit, not the freedom of expression, movement or activity which is largely dependent on external circumstances. Although for most of recorded history Jews lived under oppressive regimes we always remained inherently free. Even in Soviet gulags and Nazi concentration camps, the spirit of faith, empathy and care for another managed to flourish because the spirit is always free.
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, assumed leadership of the global Chabad Lubavitch movement in 1950, in the shadows of the horrors of the Holocaust while 3 million Jews were trapped behind the Iron Curtain. He dedicated his life to rebuilding, rejuvenating and inspiring the global Jewish community, but his influence extended to all humanity.
Here is a lesson I recently learned from listening to a recording of the event held in honor of the Rebbe’s 74th birthday (four days before Passover) in April 1976. The topic was liberty and he illustrated the distinction between external liberty and true liberty by analyzing a sensational recent event.
A week earlier, on April 5, 1976, the media announced the death of Howard Hughes, an American business magnate, investor and philanthropist, known during his lifetime as one of the most financially successful individuals in the world. His extreme paranoia and eccentric reclusiveness had driven him into hiding and at the time of his death he suffered from malnutrition and was covered in bedsores.
“Here was a man who had the ability to do as he wished,” the Rebbe explained. “Yet in his personal life was more confined than an incarcerated prisoner.” His freedom of expression, movement and activity were so severely hampered because he was unable to tap into the liberty of spirit.
My grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, languished in Stalin’s gulags for seven years but stubbornly subsisted on potato peels and sugar cubes for the eight days of Passover so as not to violate the prohibition of eating leaven during the festival.
As a teenager in Auschwitz, my wife’s grandmother, Mrs. Itu Lustig, refused her morsel of bread the Nazis gave her on Passover eve. “It was my proudest moment in Auschwitz,” she told me with a smile.
They were prisoners in the worst conditions possible, but were truly free within.
In conversation with educators, parents and students, I have learned that while the pandemic has been challenging for everyone, education in particular has taken a terrible hit. Aside for the learning loss, the skyrocketing suicide rates and mental issues among children and adolescents is terribly alarming, leading many to appreciate the crucial need to nurture a greater sense of inner purpose within our young ones. To provide them the liberty that cannot be compromised by lockdowns, school closures or tragic loss of life.
For over 40 years, every U.S. president has designated the Rebbe’s birthday as Education and Sharing Day in tribute to his bringing the topic of moral and ethical education to the forefront of the national conversation. This is the inner liberty achieved in classrooms, at dinner tables, neighborhood parks and in every interaction we have with our children. To nurture the awareness that each individual action can make a positive impact on the entire world, providing them the inner strength and purpose, that will make them inherently free.
Passover begins on Saturday, March 27, in the evening and is celebrated through Sunday, April 4. To learn more about Passover please visit chabadelpaso.com/passover.
Levi Greenberg is associate rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch in El Paso.
Cover photo: Jews traditionally drink four cups of wine from the kiddush cup at the Passover Seder. (Justin Hamel/El Paso Matters)