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Listen to my interview on the Bill Martinez show (interview begins at 33:00).
After generations of slavery and oppression, amidst miracles unprecedented and unrepeated, the Children of Israel marched forth out of Egypt and into the wilderness as a free people for the first time in their collective memory. Fifty days later they stood together at Sinai to receive the Torah — the code of 613 commandments that would define every aspect of their lives.
What happened to freedom? What happened to the promise of redemption when all that really happened was the trading of one master for another?
Much of the modern world has built its understanding of freedom upon Thomas Jefferson’s famous formulation of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But what would life be like in a society of unrestricted freedom? How many of us would choose to live in with no rules at all, where everyone was free to drive on either side of the road, to take whatever they desired regardless of rightful ownership, to indulge every whim and impulse without a thought of accountability? The absolute “freedom” of pure anarchy would provide no protection for the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Consequently, it would provide no freedom at all.
Intuitively, we understand that some freedoms have to be sacrificed in order to preserve order and ensure the common welfare. If so, we are forced to refine our concept of freedom. In contrast to ancient Egypt, in which our ancestors were coerced by the rod and the whip to bow before Pharaoh’s will, the G-d of our redemption allows us the freedom from immediate retribution. By doing so, the Almighty empowers us with the freedom to make our own choices, to take responsibility of our own actions, and to transform ourselves from creatures of physical impulse into beings of spiritual refinement.
Ultimately, the freedom we possess is the freedom to choose our own master, to choose the leaders and system of laws that will best serve our collective interests in the long run.
Because we live in a society with others who also demand freedom, our choices will necessarily be limited by the conventions of society. More significantly, the values of the society in which we live will shape our own attitudes, influencing the ways we think that priorities we hold dear. From the moment we are born, our impressions are determined by others: our parents, our teachers, and our peers, as well as writers, celebrities, sports stars, and advertisers.
How often have we asked ourselves whether the ideas that govern our choices as spouses, as parents, and as community members are truly our own? How often do we stop to reflect whether we have acquired the values that guide us in our relationships and our careers through thoughtful contemplation or through cultural osmosis?
The illusion of freedom convinces us that our own gratification comes before our obligations to others, before even our obligations to ourselves. If we allow our desire for unrestricted freedom to steer our lives, we will find ourselves enslaved by our desires no less than a chain smoker is a slave to his cigarettes or an alcoholic is a slave to his gin. Convinced that freedom is a goal in itself, we will sacrifice everything of true value for the cruel master of self-indulgence. Deceived into believing that responsibility is the antithesis of freedom, we will invest ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, in philosophies like this one:
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, Nothing don’t mean nothing honey if it ain’t free, now now. And feeling good was easy, L-rd, when he sang the blues, You know feeling good was good enough for me, Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.
These are the words that made Janis Joplin into a counterculture idol, before she died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27.
Less dramatic examples confront us every day. Politicians, movie icons, and athletes destroy their careers and their family lives for a few fleeting moments of pleasure. Parents allow their children to grow up without direction or discipline lest they quash their creativity or damage their egos by imposing structure and meaning upon their lives. A once-productive citizenry increasingly looks to receive support on the backs of others, whether through welfare, lawsuits, or pyramid schemes that leave countless victims footing the bill.
More than anything, Passover celebrates the freedom to think, to take stock of our lives and reassess our values, to take a fresh look at our own motivations and our own decisions, to acknowledge where we may have lost sight of truly meaningful goals and sincerely commit ourselves to striking out on a truer course.
Last year we were slaves to our inner masters; this year we have a chance to set ourselves free to seek the paths of truth and follow them toward the destination of enduring spiritual redemption.
This is how the Passover seder begins, as Jewish families all over the world prepare to re-experience their people’s historic exodus from Egypt.
Herein lies the essence of the evening and of the holiday: the national transformation from servitude to freedom. As we well know, Western culture recognizes no loftier ideal than freedom, no more contemptible degradation than slavery.
And yet, there seems to be a contradiction. When the Jewish patriarch Jacob looked with trepidation at the beginnings of exile as he prepares to lead his family down into Egypt, the Almighty reassured him with the words, “al tiroh avdi Yaakov — Do not fear, My servant Jacob.” The sages observe that only ten were called by G-d, “My servant,” and that there is no greater accolade than to be considered a servant of the Divine.
How can this be? We were servants to Pharaoh in Egypt, and on Passover we celebrate freedom. If freedom is our goal, why is My servant the highest praise with which Jacob and the other luminaries of Jewish tradition can be lauded?
The answer is really self-evident. To serve a higher goal, a higher purpose, or a higher ideal is not servitude at all. It is rather to connect with something greater than oneself and, thereby, to become greater in the process.
On the gate to Harvard Yard these words from university president Charles William Eliot were inscribed over a century ago: Enter to grow in wisdom. Depart better to serve thy country and mankind. One can only hope the message is still heeded. In the language of biblical Hebrew, there is no distinction between service and servitude except the context in which they are used. We were slaves to Pharaoh because we had no choice, because the whips and rods of Pharaoh’s taskmasters bloodied our backs and crippled our bodies if we slackened in our labor. But freedom from Pharaoh gave us the opportunity to enter freely into the service of heaven, to accept upon ourselves the yoke of the Torah and its commandments in devotion to a higher purpose and in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment.
But even so, Pharaoh’s army drowned in the waters of the Sea of Reeds 3,328 years ago. How are the words of the Haggadah, this year we are slaves, still relevant after so many generations?
Freedom is not a goal; it is an opportunity — and freedom misused often results in slavery. Is the chain smoker addicted to nicotine truly free? Is the alcoholic who cannot give up his drink or the workaholic who cannot relax from his business truly free? And what of the status seeker who worships designer labels and fancy cars; the teenager who worships the false god of cool; the couch potato who worships his soda and his chips and his remote control; or the anorexic who worships her skeletal reflection in the mirror and imagines herself a goddess — is any one of them truly free?
Finally, what of the cosmopolitan, the progressive, the enlightened thinker who has cast off what he believes to be the shackles of tradition in favor of the values of modern society, the rational humanist who believes himself to be the better judge of morals and ethics than the eternal transmission of his own heritage? Is he truly free, or has he not in fact allowed himself to become the unwitting slave of yet another master?
This year we have been slaves — slaves to our prejudices and biases, slaves to our own impulses and egos, slaves to the expectations of the culture that surrounds us. But Passover reminds us that we are as free as we choose to be, that we alone hold the keys to the chains that hold us back from acquiring the most precious gift of all — a closer relationship with the ultimate Master.
Freedom is a privilege, not an inheritance. Freedom is an obligation, not a right. Freedom calls us to duty, not to indulgence.
And the illusion of freedom may be the cruelest tyrant of all, seducing us into accepting the slavery of ego, impulse, and comfort.
Every day we should ask ourselves: are we fighting to deserve and to preserve the freedom that our fathers fought so hard for us to have?