Tradition Today: The feast of freedom

Tradition has labeled Passover “the time of our freedom.”

Passover seder hand washing (photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)
Passover seder hand washing
(photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)
This evening, Jews throughout the world will sit down at a Seder to celebrate Passover. Some will have a traditional Seder with a thorough reading of the Haggada. Some will have an abbreviated or modified version. Some will do little more than enjoy a festive meal. Nevertheless, there is probably no other occasion of the Jewish year that receives as much attention and is observed so universally as this one. Surveys have shown, for example, that the vast majority of Israeli Jews have a Seder. Why is that? There is no single explanation for this phenomenon. Family togetherness certainly plays a part, as does the feeling of being part of a people that came into being at Passover. One main reason is the idea of freedom. Tradition has labeled Passover “the time of our freedom.”
This was brought home to me forcibly many years ago when, as a young chaplain in the United States Air Force, I was sent to conduct a Seder in Spain for American troops stationed there and in North Africa.
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The Franco regime, then in power, would not permit Spanish Jews to join us – no reason was ever given. Our Seder, celebrating freedom, took place behind closed doors in front of which members of the Spanish Civil Guard were stationed to enforce that ruling. We celebrated freedom in a place where freedom did not exist.
It seems to me irrefutable that the desire for freedom is shared among human beings of all races and religions. Although we live in a world in which more people are free and live under democratic governments than perhaps ever before, there are still masses who live under totalitarian regimes for whom freedom is still a distant dream – but it is a dream that will not die. Time and time again, we see this overwhelming urge bursting forth as tyrants are overthrown and people shatter the bonds of dictatorships to become free. In his only opera, Fidelio, Beethoven celebrates this urge for freedom in the magnificent scene in which the prison gates open and the prisoners burst forth into freedom. It is hardly a coincidence that the biblical words “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” are inscribed on the American Liberty Bell.
PERHAPS FOR the first time in the last 2,000 years, the vast majority of Jews are living in lands in which true freedom exists. The two major centers of Jewish life – almost identical in size – are Israel and the United States, true democracies both. The other centers of Jewish population are also in democratic countries in Europe, South America and Australia.
What a difference this is from the situation of Jews in the 19th century or the early 20th century. And although anti-Semitism is by no means eradicated in these free lands, most Jews no longer face state-sponsored or even state-tolerated anti-Semitism. For this we should give thanks as we celebrate our festival of freedom, but we should also be vigilant to ensure that democracy is maintained in all the lands where we live – Israel included – and thereby ensure respect for the God-given freedoms that are so precious to us all.
When cherishing freedom, we should also remember that in the religious philosophy of Judaism, freedom is accompanied by responsibility.
For the rabbis, there was a direct connection between Passover and Shavuot. The freedom we attained in the Exodus was to be accompanied by acceptance of the rules in the Torah, an acceptance that was voluntary.
This is expressed in the way they read the unusual word “harut” in the verse, “God’s writing was inscribed [harut] on the tablets” (Exodus 32:16).
“Read not harut – inscribed – but herut – freedom,” explain the rabbis (Exodus R. 41:7). “Only one who observes the words on these tablets is truly free” (Midrash Hagadol Exodus 32:16).
Freedom without law, freedom without responsibility, becomes anarchy.
A society in which laws are ignored quickly disintegrates.The difference between a democracy and a totalitarian state is not in the absence of rules and regulations, but in the people’s ability to decide freely who will govern them and what will be the content of their laws. Laws there must be to regulate the conduct of society. Let us make certain, however, that these laws are themselves guarantors of freedom for all.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).