What it means to be free

Freedom, fragile and rather rare, must be zealously guarded and always renewed.

Pessah 298 AP (photo credit: Associated Press)
Pessah 298 AP
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In the measured cadence and soaring beauty of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (a speech that American students were once required to commit to memory) there appears a phrase at the end - "a new birth of freedom." Lincoln hit upon a basic value in Jewish life and in the Torah. Freedom, rather than being a permanent and expected state of being, is fragile and rather rare in human history. Therefore, because of its very fragility and scarcity, freedom has to be treasured, appreciated and constantly renewed. Every person and every society regularly requires a new birth of freedom to maintain its hard-won liberty. And this is one of the basic messages of Pessah. The Haggada teaches us that "in each and every generation the Jew has to envision himself or herself as though he or she just left Egypt and its bondage." Pessah is therefore not merely a commemorative holiday, though it is that as well, but more importantly it is a holiday of constant rebirth and renewal. In our prayers, we refer to Pessah as zman heruteinu - the time of our freedom. This implies not only past freedom but current freedom as well. Pessah demands from us that we continue to struggle and appreciate our freedom. It is not without dangers and weaknesses. It must therefore be zealously guarded and always renewed. The question naturally arises: "What is the true definition of freedom?" Where is the line between anarchy and licentiousness on the one hand, and responsible exercise of free rights on the other? All free societies grapple with these questions and issues. Freedom is undoubtedly limited by values, public concerns, other people's rights and a sense of choosing between right and wrong, justice and corruption. Even if a consensus is reached as to the best definition of responsible freedom, who is to enforce that decision? The police? The courts? Personal conscience alone? The rabbis of the Talmud defined freedom in conjunction with Torah and its laws and values. The concept of freedom according to the Talmud is engraved on the very stones of the Ten Commandments. But in being so engraved, it is also circumscribed by those commandments and the Torah. "There is no free person without the study and discipline of the Torah," was the motto of the Talmud. Physical freedom without spiritual strength and its necessary limitations on human behavior becomes narcissism, addiction and dangerous foolishness. Thus supposed freedom can turn into a bitter case of self-tyranny, the worst form of slavery. One of the understandings in interpreting the words of the rabbis of the Mishna - "a good heart" and "a bad heart" - is precisely that point. A "good heart" knows limitations and discipline. "A bad heart" is wild, uncontrollable, capricious and ultimately self-destructive. The Torah warns against following the dictates of such a heart. There is a thread that runs through many of the books of memoirs written by Prisoners of Zion regarding their experiences in the gulag and under Soviet persecution. That thread of similarity relates to their spiritual highs even in jails and punishment cells. The inner serenity of knowing one is right and morally upright ennobles a person to strive to be truly free - free of one's desires and pressures, and free to view life and one's holy role in it in a clear and unbiased fashion. This is truly a gift of freedom. It is the new birth of freedom that we all crave. Our evil inclination, our bad habits, our lack of discipline in speech and behavior all combine to make us addicts and slaves. We all know that merely telling an addict to stop does not bear positive results. The addict has to want to stop more than he or she wants to continue his or her addictive behavior. Pessah provides the forum for us to stop our addictive behavior and to refashion ourselves for the good. It helps inject within us the new birth of freedom that can alone guarantee our future success in life, family, community and work. So at the Seder table this Pessah, we should truly see ourselves as being newly freed not only from the ancient Pharaoh but from our own modern selves as well. How spiritually uplifting and delightful that feeling of freedom will be. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com)