A Noble Freedom
Many Virginians of middle and upper ranks aspired to behave like gentlemen. In the early seventeenth century an English gentleman was defined as one who could “live idly and without manual labor.” The words “gentleman” and “independent” were used synonymously, and “independence” in this context meant freedom from the necessity of labor.
—David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, 366
To be a gentleman in colonial Virginia, one had to be free from the burden of working for a living. So important was this requirement that it was not unusual for these men to borrow heavily so as to avoid engaging in business (Ibid., 368). Of course, refraining from work by itself did not make one a gentleman or a lady; it required other valued aspects of a lifestyle of nobility, which included family connections, a certain education, and adherence to a specific code of honor.
On Pesah, we celebrate our freedom from slavery, but this is just the first part of herut: the “freedom” mentioned in the Haggadah (hofesh, a later Hebrew term for freedom, is today associated with both vacation and secularism). What were the next steps for the Israelites toward a freedom we can be proud of? Revealed law at Sinai; “choosing life” in the wilderness; establishing a polity and religious center in the Land of Israel; and developing the rich rabbinic culture that continues to evolve and guide us today.
We imitate nobles of the Roman era when we recline during the seder, and perhaps this is not only to signal that we are free from servitude. Although our ideals are very different from those of the Roman elite (or the colonial Virginian elite, whose “independence” relied heavily on the slavery of others), we declare at Pesah that we are a People that seeks to be defined by an aspirational set of behaviors and values.