As we prepare to celebrate Pesach (Passover), America’s young people are facing a mental health crisis. Global events such as the pandemic, financial instability, and war have coincided with a significant rise in mental health challenges among young people. Governor Tony Evers has even declared 2023 the Year of Mental Health.
A theme I often notice when speaking with young people (are they called Gen Zs?) is that they recognize that they have it pretty good, better than many generations that preceded them. Yet, for some reason it’s not enough. There is something which they can’t put their finger on, something that’s not being satisfied — almost an emptiness or a void. It’s as if they’re saying, “I may have it all, but for what purpose?”
At Pesach we celebrate our freedom. Freedom in body. Freedom in mind. Freedom in soul. In fact, there are two primary kinds of freedom that Passover celebrates — a “freedom from” and a “freedom to;” the freedom from oppression, and the freedom to express our deepest, essential self.
The journey out of Egypt encompassed both of those freedoms. The Jewish people were freed “from” Pharaoh and the Egyptians; they also became free “to” live a life of meaning and purpose. Charlton Heston’s Moses said, “Let my people go.” Real life Moses said, “Let my people go — so they may serve Me [G-d].”
The Jewish people’s physical freedom from the hardships of slavery was incomplete without the spiritual freedom to live according to the path set forth by G-d in the Torah, as the essence and highest calling of the Jew.
In 1983, the Rebbe — Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory —explained that Passover “comes around every year not merely to remind us of the liberation of our ancestors from Egyptian bondage, but also to inspire us to strive for a greater measure of self-liberation from all limitations and distractions.”
In our day and age, it’s not enough for Jews to simply strive for freedom from adverse conditions and from antisemitism. We need to have a positive Judaism to live for and to inspire our young with.
By providing the blueprint for living a meaningful, G-dly, purpose-driven life, the Torah guided and preserved our ancestors through stress, difficulty, and physical and mental struggles of all kinds — and can help provide tools to find meaning and purpose even in the midst of our anxiety, stress and turmoil.
The liberty we have continually fought for in America has given our kids a sense of freedom from; it’s time to give them a sense of freedom to.
When we put money in the tzedakah box, and teach our kids to do the same and to think of someone in need, we help them find meaning and in essence, the freedom to. When we put on Tefillin, pausing to align our mind, heart, and deed with purpose and a G-dly calling, we express our freedom to. Pausing on Friday before sunset, from the chaos of the week, to light a Shabbat candle and to sanctify the moment allows us to remember our purpose and the space to take stock of what’s important — our Jewish essence, our family and our loved ones.
These Mitzvos help us experience true freedom, freedom not only from oppression but freedom to live our purpose and our lives to their fullest.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for mental health challenges. But finding renewed purpose and meaning in our lives is something that we can all benefit from; steering us to a place of inner peace and clarity — and that mental freedom can empower us, regardless of the external obstacles that come our way.
The Rebbe would often wish people at Passover, may “the Festival of Our Freedom bring you and yours true freedom. Freedom from anxiety — material and spiritual — from anything which might distract from serving G‑d wholeheartedly and with joy, and to carry over this freedom and joy into the whole year.”
This Pesach, let’s be free.
Opinions expressed in this commentary, and other commentaries, are those of the author and are not necessarily representative of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. We seek to publish a diversity of opinions. Rabbi Mendel Shmotkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Rabbi Mendel Shmotkin is an emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, OBM. He serves as the CEO of Lubavitch of Wisconsin and the spiritual leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Torah Center in Glendale.