On Passover night, during the Seder, we are confronted with a wealth of forms, symbols, complicated customs and rituals, and several different phases of Jewish history.

At the root of all this richness and variety, however, lies one central idea that binds the Seder’s disparate parts into a single whole: “Once we were slaves—now we are free.”

On the night of Passover, this idea of freedom is given full expression in the haggadah: in ritual and symbolic acts, in poetry, and in the overall atmosphere of the evening. The haggadah is not a philosophical treatise, yet ideas of great profundity are expressed in its most uncomplicated forms, through simple words and actions. The significance of these acts is bold and striking, making its way, consciously or not, into the souls of those who participate in them.

Freedom and slavery appear to be simple opposites, each defined as the absence of the other; slavery, the absence of freedom; freedom, the absence of slavery. But each of these terms must be understood without reference to the other.

Throwing off one’s fetters does not necessarily mean that one has entered into a state of freedom. Slavery is that condition in which a person is always subject to the will of another. Freedom, on the other hand, is the ability to act upon, and carry out, one’s own independent will.

The individual who lacks a will of his own does not become free once he is unshackled: he is simply a slave without a master, or, in the case of a people, those whose overlords have abandoned them.

Between ceasing to be a slave and acquiring freedom, the individual must thus pass through an intermediate stage in his progress, without which he cannot become truly free—he must develop inner qualities of his own.

The miracle of the Exodus was not completed with the people’s departure from the house of bondage; they needed to develop to become a truly free people and not merely runaway slaves.

Their situation as they stood on the banks of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit was described by the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra: The children of Israel could not even think of putting up any sort of opposition to Pharaoh, for they had been brought up in slavery, and they were so accustomed to it that all their old subservient attitudes overcame them afresh at the sight of their former master.

Only after the entire generation that had lived in bondage had perished in the wilderness could their descendants enter the land of Israel and establish themselves there as a free people.

In other words, the slave is doubly bound, first of all by his subjugation to another’s will, end secondly by his lack of a will and a personality of his own. A person who retains his own essential character can never completely be enslaved; and, conversely, a person who has no independent self-image can never be truly free.

What we have said of the relationship between slavery and freedom is all the more true of the relationship between exile and redemption. An end to exile is not in itself sufficient to constitute redemption—something more must still take place.

The meaning of the word “exile” is not limited to a physical definition. As with slavery, the meaning and full significance of the word lies in the spiritual realm. To be in exile means that one has surrendered oneself to a set of values, relationships, and a way of life that is foreign to the individual or collective ego.

When the persecuted Jewish people went into exile, they had to change their mode of living and the ways in which they sustained themselves. Once an agricultural people, they now turned to trade and commerce; once free and independent, they were now subject to various lords; once the masters of their own way of life, they now had to sway with every passing wind.

As long as they retained their independent spiritual character, their religious principles, their internal leadership, and their distinctive way of life, the Jewish people were never truly enslaved—at least not in the spiritual dimension of their existence.

The darkness and ignorance of the Middle Ages did nothing to damage, alter or diminish the spiritual creativity and vitality of the exiled Jewish people. The Jew of this period was persecuted, humiliated and despised; he had to admit to being weak and helpless in many areas of his life. Nevertheless his exile was never really complete, for he did not see himself as being contemptible, nor did he consider himself inferior to anyone else as long as he kept his own essential character. His spiritual world was not merely a comfort to him. It was truly his home, and in this dimension of his life, the exile did not exist.

Paradoxically, it was assimilation that made his exile complete, for when the assimilated Jew parted with his own distinctive character, he gave up the last shred of his independence. Thus, even if he had gained his freedom as an individual, he became exiled in the full sense of the word on the national level. Now it was the external world that determined his values, character and relationships, not only on a superficial level but in the depths of his heart.

The real tragedy of the exile in Egypt was that the slaves gradually became more and more like their masters, thinking like them and even dreaming the same dreams. Their greatest sorrow, in fact, was that their master would not let them fulfill the Egyptian dream. It was not enough for them to realize how much they were suffering under the harsh regime to which they were subject—they had to decide that they no longer wanted any part of it.

To change the Egyptian class structure so that they too might aspire to become officers and overlords would not have sufficed to liberate them from their bondage. Only when they were ready to depart, not only from the physical land of Egypt but also from the conceptual world in which they had lived—when they were ready to sacrifice their devotion to Egyptian values along with that first Paschal lamb—only then could they truly be redeemed.

In order to achieve true redemption, and not only an end to exile, it is not enough for the Jewish people to leave “the wilderness of the nations.” It must regain its own essence, its character, spirit, ways of thinking and ways of life. Only then can it really be free. Only then will it have been redeemed.

Through all the laws and customs of the Seder night, what we are really emphasizing is the most important thing about ourselves: “Once we were slaves, and now we are free.” As we go through the rituals and recite the haggadah, and as we discuss the written text and what lies beyond it, we must bring ourselves to understand ever more deeply that we shall truly be redeemed only when we take it upon ourselves to fulfill our need to live in our own unique way—that is when we become truly free.