As he prepared to preside over his last Passover services at Beth El synagogue in Pikesville, Rabbi Mark Loeb allowed himself to consider the opportunities and the responsibilities that come with freedom - his own and the human family's.
"Most people think the story is the Haggadah, where we say God gets the people out of bondage. We celebrate it, and happy days are here again. That's not it," Loeb said, referring to Passover. "Liberation from bondage only takes you away from oppression, but it doesn't liberate your soul to dream about how to live your life."
Nor does the Passover story end with the Jews' liberation from Egypt or its retelling during tonight's Seder, Loeb said. It concludes in seven weeks with Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the Ten Commandments that God gave Moses to show the Hebrews that their freedom came with responsibility.
Loeb is retiring June 1 as only the second senior rabbi in the Conservative synagogue's 60-year history. He plans to use his "liberation" to teach, to volunteer, to travel and to read. Friends suspect he might indulge his love of opera and professional wrestling, too.
At 64, Loeb has achieved a special prominence among Baltimore clergy of all faiths. Christopher M. Leighton, a Presbyterian minister and executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, which Loeb helped found, called the rabbi "unflinching in his willingness to tackle hard questions and frame difficult challenges that Christians and Jews need to face together."
"He doesn't shy away from speaking truth to power," or raising "hard questions about Israel," Leighton said. The minister also cited the affection Loeb shared with the late Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy, saying it "sets a standard for how our different religious communities ought to be interacting."
Joel Zaiman, rabbi emeritus at neighboring Chizuk Amuno synagogue, called Loeb "totally committed" to interfaith dialogue. "His major contribution is ... the power of his intellect and personality. He has a steel-trap mind and is incredibly articulate. That's what works," Zaiman said.
Loeb has served on gubernatorial commissions on discrimination and adolescent pregnancy. He is frequently sought out for his views on national and global issues of peace, religion and human rights. But most of his life has been absorbed by Beth El, which has doubled in size since he took over the pulpit in June 1976.
To celebrate his tenure, Beth El is planning a weekend of festivities beginning May 30, after which Associate Rabbi Steven Schwartz will take over. But first comes Passover, which Beth El will celebrate with two services tomorrow, at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
As Loeb reflected this week on the holiday, freedom and retirement, the phone calls and messages arriving in his book-lined office at Beth El never ceased. "It's a stressful life when you've got a synagogue of 1,700 families, and an awful lot of very urgent things happen," he said. There are eulogies to write, the bereaved to comfort, births, weddings and other milestones.
"I'm certainly not a slave," he continued, "nor does becoming retired make me a free man. ... But I do know there were parts of my own abilities, things I could do that I think would be a great privilege to do now, that I was unable to do before."
He hopes to use his time to teach and explore volunteer work at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Baltimore, offering encouragement and support "to people who have given parts of their life up for all of us," he said.
"I never served in the Army. It seems to me I owe it to give something back to our country," he said.
Reading books and traveling are also on his list: "I'll be able to do that without having to worry about a holiday or a wedding or a bar mitzvah," he said.
After three decades of spiritual challenge and change in the community, Loeb said, he finds "much to be encouraged by."
There are more people studying Judaism than ever before, he believes - more rabbinical schools, more students and adults in Judaic studies. "Spirituality is a very serious matter for a lot more people than ever before," he said.
There are also more opportunities for young people to live and study abroad, he said, where they can "begin to take a measure of the things that unite the human family. To have a universalistic view of humanity is still the most wonderful kind of antidote to fanaticism and racism."
He also sees a Jewish movement that must embrace change. "The forms of Judaism of the past generation are slowly fading. That's because that generation is leaving us. New forms will emerge." He leaves content with that, too.
But he says he does worry about larger issues that affect society as a whole: alienation, conflict and poverty; how we use our freedom, or fail to use it, to address our common problems.
"I think there is still a sense in society of 'us and them,' and I don't mean Jews and non-Jews, " he said. In employment, education, health care or the environment, for example, if our system fails for some, "it fails with all of us," he declared.
Rabbi Loeb worries about the growing gap between rich and poor, and the instability it produces around the world. He's appalled by Americans' capacity to tolerate the war in Iraq "because most of us have nothing to do with it," he said. Without a draft, he said, "it doesn't touch our families. We're just paying for it."
He also blames a lack of what he calls "a universal view of life." "People don't cherish each other with a sacredness or holiness that we used to," he said.
These, he says, are among the lessons in the Passover story, which Jewish families will recount at Seder dinners tonight and tomorrow.
It's a story of the 10 biblical plagues that God unleashed upon the Egyptians as Moses struggled to win the Jews' release from slavery - and especially the terrifying 10th plague, which took the lives of Egypt's firstborn sons. God spared only the Hebrews, who smeared lamb's blood on their doors so that death would "pass over" their homes, giving the holiday its name.
It's a story of the unleavened bread, or matzo, that the Hebrews baked for their hasty escape into the desert and that Jews still eat for eight days to commemorate the holiday.
But the Passover story does not end with liberation, Loeb said.
"Being released from suffering is not enough," Loeb said. "The result of suffering is to come away with respect for those who suffer and not join those who offend them. You learn from your suffering and find a way to dedicate yourself to something important."
"Some people are frightened by freedom, because it imposes responsibility," Loeb added. "It doesn't give you the right to do what you want all the time." Free people are also obliged to live "a purposeful life, and to accept responsibility for your life."