We are currently celebrating Passover, the Festival of Freedom, and yet, since the original Exodus and liberation, we have again lost our freedom. The Babylonians destroyed our First Temple, the Romans the Second, and we became a wandering people for millennia.

Even today, the Temple Mount is forbidden to Jewish worshipers. And, as powerfully impressive as the Western Wall may be, it is only a remnant of the glorious Holy Temple that is yet to be rebuilt.

So why do we continue to celebrate the anniversary of our liberation when that very freedom was subsequently lost?

There are those who have suggested: “You can take the Jew out of Egypt (and slavery) … but you can’t take Egypt out of the Jew!”

In other words, the slave mentality has remained ingrained in our national psyche.

Yet, back in the 16th century, the holy Rabbi Judah Lowe argued differently. Known as the Maharal, he was a mystic, halachist, philosopher, and chief rabbi of Prague.

The Maharal writes1 that not only did the Jews avoid inheriting a slave mentality from Egypt, but the opposite—the Exodus forever changed the inner identity of the Jew. The Exodus set us free, not only physically and politically, but spiritually and psychologically.

The Exodus was not just a one-off historical event, or a fantastic, dramatic story that we retell every year at our Passover Seders. No. The Exodus was a spiritual revolution which changed the mentality, the mindset, the psyche, and the very nature of a Jew forever. Freedom was wired into our national DNA. We are, by definition, a free people, and nothing and no one can ever change that.

And so, the Season of our Liberation is indeed worthy of eternal remembrance.

The Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, spiritual leader of Russian Jewry from 1920 onwards, fought the Communists tooth and nail. They were hellbent on eradicating Jewish practice in Russia, but with unwavering commitment he and his chassidim kept Jewish schools, shuls and mikvahs going clandestinely. Many paid with their lives, including both my wife’s grandfathers.

The Rebbe himself was arrested and sentenced to death, but even in prison he remained resolute. Miraculously, his sentence was commuted to 10 years of exile in Kostroma, a few hundred miles from Moscow.

Leningrad, 1927. The Rebbe was on the train about to go into exile. Many hundreds of chassidim came to the train station to bid him farewell. The place was packed with uniformed officers, members of the secret police, and Jewish informants. Yet the Rebbe came out and addressed the crowd. Knowing full well that every word he said would be reported to the Communist authorities, he said:

“May G‑d be with us as He was with our ancestors; may He not forsake us nor abandon us . . .” Only our bodies went into exile, but not our souls . . . We must proclaim openly before all that with regard to any matter of our faith —Torah, mitzvahs and Jewish custom—it is not subject to the opinion of others, nor can any oppressive force be used against it . . .

. . .This is our request to the Holy One, may He not forsake us nor abandon us. G‑d should give us true strength to be unintimidated by physical pain, and on the contrary to accept it with joy, so that every punishment we receive for supporting a cheder (Jewish school), for learning Torah, for performing mitzvahs, shall increase our fortitude in the holy work of strengthening Judaism.

We must remember that imprisonment and hard labor are only temporary things, whereas Torah, mitzvahs and the Jewish people are eternal . . . 2

How powerful! What courage, defiance, and unbelievable faith.

What was the Rebbe’s bottom-line message? Only our bodies can go into exile, but not our souls. The neshama does not go into galut. They may imprison and enslave our bodies, but the soul of a Jew is always free.

Miraculously, after only 10 days in exile the Rebbe was released and permitted to leave Russia. He spent time in Riga and in Poland before arriving in the United States in 1940, where he re-established the center of Chabad until his passing in 1950.

The Rebbe was not only echoing the words of the Maharal; he was living proof.

Which brings me to April 1943, the very last Pesach Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Brave, defiant Jewish fighters courageously fought back against the mighty Nazi war machine from the rooftops, while down below, in the cellars, a Pesach Seder was taking place. They found a white tablecloth to cover the table, and candles. They even managed to bake matzah in the ghetto! Marror they had enough of; there was no shortage of bitterness there.

Can you imagine the child asking the Mah Nishtanah that night?! Some of the Jews at that Seder in Warsaw survived the war. Most did not. But the faith, the courage, the defiance, and the sense of inner freedom to even attempt to hold a Seder in those circumstances is awe-inspiring.

Or how about the Jews who risked their lives to bake matzah in the concentration camps? I knew one of them personally—Reb Yankel Friedman. He joined the holy Klausenberger Rebbe in the dangerous secret mission to bake matzahs inside the camps.3

The Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam,4 lost his wife and 11 children in the Holocaust. He survived and ended up in New York, where he rebuilt his family, and his community. Later he moved to Israel and the Laniado Hospital in Netanya is just one of many institutions he built. He was a giant of spirit and inspired many thousands with his indomitable faith under fire.

And that innate freedom of the Jew is likewise embodied in the story of Pini Nahmani. On Thursday, April 2, 1970, an Israeli fighter jet was shot down over Syria. The pilot, 26-year-old Pini Nahmani, was imprisoned in the Al Mazza jail in Damascus. He was later freed as part of a prisoner exchange between the two countries.

Pini wrote about his time in prison. With Passover approaching, he and his two fellow Israelis inmates prepared for a Seder. They scrubbed the floor and painted a Seder plate on a piece of cardboard. They had two Haggadahs and some matzah from the chief rabbi of Zurich.

Boaz Eitan, the youngest, asked the Mah Nishtanah, the Four Questions. They ate matzah and they sang. They sang all their favorite Passover songs; the songs of their youth. They sang so loudly that the prison guards warned them to tone it down or they would be sent to solitary confinement. But they ignored the guards. They felt free and they kept singing.

Pini later wrote that his most memorable and inspirational Seder was the one he celebrated in that Damascus prison.

Stripped of everything, including their dignity, he and his fellow Israelis were determined to remain free men and faithful Jews, despite the torture and the terror. And they did. Miraculously, they lived to tell the tale.

As the Maharal taught, ever since the Exodus, every Jew possesses that innate, unbreakable sense of freedom. This Passover, may we tap into it and let it liberate us from the drudgery and mediocrity to achieve true, inner freedom.