Paul Greenberg

Tonight we quit Egypt at last, and strike out for the promised land. It's the first night of Passover, the first night of freedom.

We Americans know what freedom is. It's one long Fourth of July party, complete with hot dogs, apple pie, and a brass band playing "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Not to mention those 76 trombones.

Tonight is another celebration of freedom, and quite a party it is, too, what with the white tablecloths, the festive bottles of wine for the required four toasts, the crispy matzah we haven't tasted for a whole year, the family stories of Passovers past, the strange-tasting foods reserved for this special night.

The old story will be retold in response to the simplest of questions, which is to be asked by the youngest child at the table: "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

Then the whole, towering, thunder-and-lightning, awe-filled Book of Exodus will be transmuted into answers fit for children of all ages-a fairy tale told in song and story, capped by a great scavenger hunt at the end of the evening for the last crumb of sanctified matzah needed to properly complete the whole, magical evening.

A good time will be had by all. That's what freedom is all about, isn't it?

No. Because at some point during the evening, reality will dawn. It's a different point for different people. For some the realization will come early, for others late, for still others never at all.

For me it comes when we spill the ten drops of wine from our celebratory, overflowing cups of wine. One drop of wine for each of the Ten Plagues that struck the Egyptians-to show that our cup of joy cannot be full if others suffer, even our oppressors.

When the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. The Holy One, blessed be He, silenced them, saying: My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises!-Talmud Bavli

That's when the light of the candles dims, the faces grow somber, the room closes in with every solemn word of the ancient, ten-fold recitation: Da-ahm, Tsfardayah Blood, Frogs. Drop by red drop, the fairy tale turns into History, red in tooth and claw. Until we arrive at the last and most terrible of the plagues, Markat b'horot.The death of the first-born.

Freedom spares no innocent, minces no words, presents no pretty pictures, uses no euphemisms, does not speak of Collateral Damage. It is not just shock and awe but attrition and exhaustion, internal divisions and friendly fire.

We're in the real world now. A world in which no house is spared death, in which cities fall, captives are taken, high towers burst into flames and come tumbling downs.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.