Modern-day countries celebrate their national Independence Day in the standard fashion, with a military parade or impressive display of air power. The nation's progress is evaluated; then one and all congratulate each other on their country's fine advances. Political, economic, and military accomplishments are touted, diplomats and generals shake hands and pat each other on the back, and then all retire to indulge in a congenial picnic or lavish meal.
The Torah sums up the prevailing atmosphere with one verse:"And you say in your heart: 'My power and the might of my hand have produced this wealth for me'" (Deuteronomy 8:17).
In comparison, let us have a look how we Jews celebrate our freedom. Are we any different?
Each Pesach (Passover) we sit down to the traditional seder table to mark the anniversary of our release from Egyptian bondage. This Exodus was the first step towards becoming a national entity, and, as such, is certainly worthy of celebration. The Torah gives us clear guidelines as to how we should make the occasion meaningful. One essential item is the matzah, the unleavened bread, we eat this seder night. The seder is not complete without matzah, and we continue to serve it in place of conventional bread during the entire eight days of the holiday.
What is the connection between this flat, bland form of bread and man's independence? Why is Pesach called The Festival of Matzah, if matzah is regarded as the bread of affliction in the Haggadah? And why, when we hold our seder, do we open the narrative of the Exodus with the words "This is the bread of our affliction", referring to the matzahs before us? Doesn't this contradict the theme of Passover as the Festival of Our Freedom and a celebration of our release from enslavement?
Why should our Day of Independence be so different from that of other nations?
Rabbi Shimshon Rephael Hirsch explains:
Even when the Jewish People were officially released from bondage as slaves to their Egyptian masters, they were not free men. As the verse tells us, the Children of Israel did not choose to leave Egypt; they were forcibly expelled from their adopted homeland. Had any of them objected to being ordered to leave, and announced that he was prepared to remain a slave to Pharaoh and his people, his offer would have been vehemently rejected. The Egyptians had come to regard the Hebrews as a plague and a pestilence of which they must rid themselves as quickly as possible. They did not release the Hebrews, but expelled them from their land. At no time did any Jew have the option of remaining within the borders of the country for an extra minute, even as a slave.
Rabbi Hirsch explains that Heaven expressly chose to remove the yoke of Egyptian bondage in this manner in order that there never arise any misunderstanding. The Jewish People did not gain their independence through diplomacy or clever political moves; neither was Moses their teacher a great statesman and negotiator who managed to convince Pharaoh to release them. It was the Plague of the Firstborn, brought about by Divine intervention, which secured their freedom, and nothing else. G-d and only He alone took the Jewish People out of Egypt. The Exodus was not the doing of Moses or Aaron or any other human force or power.
It was important to G-d that this point be indisputable throughout the generations to come. Therefore, He arranged events in such a way that the Jewish People be cast out from Egypt rather than choosing to leave of their own free will.
Given the fact that it was G-d, not Moses, who achieved our release from the Egyptians, it naturally follows that henceforth, we are indebted to Him, and under obligation to serve Him, just as we previously served our Egyptian masters. To impress this matter upon our consciousness, we are commanded to recite the narrative of the Haggadah while we have a platter of matzah on the table before us, that same matzah which testifies to the fact that we left Egypt at the bidding and desperate urging of the Egyptians. It was not we who decided to take our leave, at our own, leisurely, preplanned pace. In short, the Exodus was entirely G-d's doing, and not our own accomplishment.
This attitude is unique. No other nation attributes its achievement of independence to Divine intervention. Far from it. Rather, they take great pride in having fought and won a war of independence, or having battled world diplomacy successfully and wangled a modicum of independence from the body which ruled over them in the past. For them, the Fourth of July, or whatever date it may be, marks a celebration of their temporal might and power. For the Jew, Independence Day – Pesach marks not only the day of our Exodus from Egypt, but at one and the same moment, our transition to becoming the servants of G-d rather than the slaves of Pharaoh.
The events of this historic day made it obvious that we are completely dependent on the Master of the World. A natural consequence of this awareness is our heartfelt feeling of gratitude to the Master of the World Who released us from cruel, unrewarded bondage so that we might become His chosen people. As G-d's nation, we are now entitled to earn indescribable rewards in this world and the next. Pharaoh held us as slaves for his benefit. G-d made us His servants for our own benefit.
It is interesting to note that the moment we were expelled from Egypt – with unleavened dough on our backs – we simultaneously became G-d's chosen nation, subservient not to a temporal king, Pharaoh, but to the King of Kings, upon Whom we are dependent for every aspect of our existence. Our very first steps from Egyptian domination to a state of freedom were taken while the nation was clearly aware that we owe our very existence to G-d's miracles on our behalf. The acknowledgement of our debt to Him is the foundation of our dedication to serving Him.
Herein lies the uniqueness of Israel's Day of Liberation and Independence. For the others, it is a day of self-aggrandizement, celebrated with an ostentatious display of national might. The nations of the world claim that it is their own power and might which brought them independence.
Israel knows that they are free and independent only as a result of G-d's miracles. Without His intervention, they would never have survived. Our Independence Day is called the Festival of Matzahs, of the bread of affliction, to ensure that we always remember Who it was that gave us our freedom in the first place, and remain His loyal servants to the end of our days.