“May we think of freedom, not as the right to do what we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.”

April 20, 2014 12:17
2 minute read.
Harry Truman with his wife and daughter

Harry Truman with his wife and daughter 370. (photo credit: reuters)


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US President Harry Truman stressed that “our treaties of peace bind us, the Allies, because we warred to guarantee to every nation the opportunity to live in freedom and harmony.”

How did Truman focus on the freedom fighters who dived into the depths to fathom what their role had to be? “I perceived of them as those who wanted to secure people’s freedom of opinion; freedom of expression; freedom of assembly and freedom of worship. These freedoms woven together ensure the fabric of civilization.”

The president saw himself as an engineer seeking to guide the nations of the world onto tracks that would bind the past with the present reality of freedom. He chose to do this through an American event known as the “Freedom Train.”

The Freedom Train of 1947-49 was an exhibit of famous American documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, Emma Lazarus’s “New Colossus” from the Statue of Liberty, the constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote, and many others – that toured the United States by locomotive to revive Americans’ appreciation of the value of freedom.

Although Americans had fought hard for freedom, its meaning did not filter by osmosis into the citizenry. The president had to win the people’s trust. Much as a devout Jew who is going to miss the Torah reading in synagogue for a few weeks carries a humash (Hebrew Bible) with him so he can read it as often as possible, Truman wanted to make all of these documents available for everyone to view.

When you mounted the Freedom Train, as I did in the Union Station in Atlanta, you felt encircled by the most powerful statements ever made about freedom. You felt that way because you lived in the US, which was deeply rooted in these important concepts.

The American concern for freedom is reflected in the story of an American POW who finally came home. One of the newspeople awaiting his arrival asked, “What did you think about during your imprisonment?” His reply: “I spent as much time as I had to think, wondering whether I would be worthy of ‘freedom’ when I received it.”

In the Hebrew language, there are a number of words for freedom. One is herut, which comes from the same root as harut, or “engraved.” Another is dror, a swallow. According to the rabbis, the word “herut” is linked to the Ten Commandments, where each word is engraved on the stones. The rabbis note in Avot 6:2 that the Torah is a source of freedom: “No one is free but he who busies himself with Torah”; the more you read from it, the freer you are.

The word “dror,” meanwhile, is used in the exhortation in Leviticus 25:10 to “proclaim liberty [dror] throughout the land” in the jubilee year, in which all slaves go free – like the swallow flies over the people of Israel, declaring in a poem that historian Cecil Roth discovered in an Avignon synagogue: “Rouse Thee at this spring-time feast/ Till our servitude hath ceased.” As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “Free at last, free at last!” Peter Marshall perhaps put it best when he linked freedom with responsibility: “May we think of freedom, not as the right to do what we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.”

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