The Five Steps of Freedom

Recognizing, Choosing, Fearing, Leaping, and Thanking

As we spiritually, mentally, and physically prepare for Passover, I’ve been reflecting on freedom. What does it mean to be free? How does it actually work? What does freedom feel like?

And whether or not your seder is more “read the book start to finish,” or “we just talk about it,” or “we have activities,” our central task is to tell the story of our ancestors who were not free and who became free.

Freedom is the central theme.

But, when did they become free?

On Masechet Pesachim 117a, we learn this:

Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: The song in the Torah, i.e., the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15:1–19), Moses and the Jewish people recited it when they ascended from the sea. The Gemara asks: And who said this hallel mentioned in the mishnah?

The Gemara answers: The Prophets among them established this hallel for the Jewish people, that they should recite it on every appropriate occasion; and for every trouble, may it not come upon them. When they are redeemed, they recite it over their redemption.

Shmuel tells us that at the edge of the sea, after they left Egypt, the Israelites recited the Song of the Sea. We continue to mark this moment in a number of ways—for example, every single morning as a part of services in Pesukei D’Zimra.

And according to Shmuel and the Gemara, this aligns with the Hallel, a series of Psalms we recite on important occasions and at the seder. The Gemara says explicitly, “on every occasion, for every trouble,” we hope doesn’t come to pass, and upon redemption.

This is to say, if the Song of the Sea and Hallel represent a moment of redemption, is that when they were free?

Their dancing and singing on the other side of the Red Sea was the moment of freedom.

It seems as though we are telling the story that concludes with that moment. That is the, “and they lived happily ever after” ending, sort of.

So what happened before then? How did they get there?

We could start the story with Joseph being sold into slavery, when Jacob and the family moved to Egypt, when a new Pharaoh arose, or when Moses saw the burning bush.

Wherever it began, the story in the Haggadah begins with the people under oppression. Avadim hayyinu, we were slaves.

The Torah says:

A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2:23-24)

This moment changes everything.

This is the first step of freedom: Recognizing that change is needed.

The status quo is unacceptable and needs to be articulated. It isn’t enough to think it or mull it over. For things to change, we have to cry out! Perhaps that is done in prayer or to God. Perhaps it is just saying out loud to yourself, “This has to change.”

Once the people articulate their desire for change, things move rapidly, but mostly without their involvement. Moses, representing the people, demands action from Pharaoh.

Here’s the thing: for real change, it is not enough to request it from others. We must take action on our own.

Egypt’s name in Hebrew is Mitzrayim which midrashically is related to the phrase, min hatzarim, from the narrow places. We cannot expect our circumstances, the narrow parts of our lives to instantly become wide. No, we must take leave, often mentally or spiritually, sometimes physically, from that narrow place into freedom.

This is the second step of freedom: Choosing a new path.

This isn’t to say that you’ve made a final decision on which path, by any means, but that you’ve moved on from articulation to decision.

In Pirkei Avot 3:15 we learn:

“Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted, And the world is judged with goodness…”

Freedom and choice are deeply interconnected. Here, in this context, we are reminded that our lives are not chosen for us but that our choices are our own. Even if you subscribe to the view that God knows everything, as is articulated here, our choices still matter.

Moses and the people chart a new path out of the narrow places. They marched their way to the Red Sea.

That isn’t to say they did not encounter barriers. While the plagues were not directed at the Israelites, they did represent the prevention of the people towards their goal. At each step, Pharaoh let them go but then changed his mind.

The path is not linear, barriers occur, and we must keep choosing.

The sea is a barrier unlike the ones before, and they find themselves standing on the edge.

This is the third step of freedom: Feeling fear.

Not the “fear that becomes awe” kind of fear but the one that holds us back.

The type of fear that makes you unsure of your next step.
The type of fear that prevents clear thinking.
The type of fear that gives you a pit in your stomach and tension in your chest.

It is the kind of fear that has you arguing with yourself.

In the Talmud, it describes this moment:

As it is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Meir would say: When the Jewish people stood at the Red Sea, the tribes were arguing with one other.

This one was saying: I am going into the sea first, and that one was saying: I am going into the sea first.

In this telling of the moment, Rabbi Meir imagines that the tribes are arguing about who would go first. That is not really a fearsome description at all, and Rabbi Yehudah suggests something else:

Rabbi Yehuda said to Rabbi Meir: That is not how the incident took place. Rather, this tribe said: I am not going into the sea first, and that tribe said: I am not going into the sea first.

In Rabbi Yehudah’s telling, which seems much more likely to me, the people are afraid. No one wants to take the first step. This is a reasonable response.

This is where most of us stop.

Most of us let fear control us, prevent us, and go back to think and rethink if we’ve made the right choice. But deep down, we know that the narrow place will remain there. Our spiritual self will still be slathering bricks with mortar unless we get over the fear.

What happens next at the edge of the Sea?

In jumped the prince of Judah, Nahshon ben Amminadab, and descended into the sea first, accompanied by his entire tribe…

And in this regard, the traditionexplicates Nahshon’s prayer at that moment: “Save me, God; for the waters are come in even unto the soul. I am sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing…let not the water flood overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up” (Psalms 69:2–3, 16).

This is the fourth step of freedom: Taking the leap.

Nachshon takes the plunge.

We might imagine that he’s fearless, but the Talmud tells us otherwise. Nachshon knows he’s in the deep end, waters surrounding him, nearly regretful of the decision he’s made.

Though he prays for support, he knows there is no going back. There is only forward toward freedom. This is the scariest moment in the journey, more than the fear itself.

It is not being able to clearly express what is on the other side, if the water will be too deep, if the sea will provide a path. But we know what is on the other side.


And this is what we are meant to talk about during the seder as we think about our own journeys.

This is what the Haggadah, drawn from the Mishnah Pesachim 10:5, says:

In each and every generation a person must view themselves as though they personally left Egypt, as it is stated: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: It is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

We are meant to reflect on this journey, that we too left Egypt, that we too wrestled with the fear, that we too chose a new path.

This is that moment when freedom has occurred. It is not when we made it to the other side of the sea, but when we took our first step into the water.

However, freedom is more than a status obtained. It is more than the binary: free or not free. The feeling of freedom is fleeting, in part, because there is one more step.

This is the fifth step of freedom: Expressing gratitude.

The Mishnah and the Haggadah goes on to say:

Therefore we are obligated to thank, praise, glorify, extol, exalt, honor, bless, revere, and laud the One who performed for our ancestors and for us all these miracles: God took us out from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to a Festival, from darkness to a great light, and from enslavement to freedom. And we will say before God: Halleluya.

In the context of the Exodus and our other freedom moments, having made it through, we mark it.

How do we mark it? How do we respond to experiencing freedom? Through praise, gratitude, and song.

This brings us back to where we began. When do we recite Hallel and sing? When we’ve experienced freedom and redemption.

Our journey through the Haggadah, during Passover, each year, and our entire lives is a cycle of this path, over and over again: new articulations, new fears, new choices, new leaps, and new things to be grateful for.

There are many narrow places in our lives. And in some years, we take a few steps along the way. In others, we make it through with gratitude.

This cycle repeats as we grow as human beings. We are repeatedly given the opportunity to work our way through the steps. To experience freedom over and over again. And Nachshon reminds us: we have to keep getting into the water, no matter how cold and scary it is.

Thank you for reading! In my With Torah and Love newsletter, I write about Torah, Talmud, self-awareness, and becoming our best selves as students of life and Judaism.

About the Author

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is a teacher and consultant. He teaches the Torah rooted in personal growth, kindness, intentionality, and bettering the world. He writes the With Torah and Love newsletter.

He helps clergy, congregations, and Jewish organizations grow and communicate clearly in the digital world, develop effective strategies, and solve problems with his consulting firm, Next Level Rabbinics.