Celebrating our freedom to flourish

We find meaning not in the restrictions of the holiday, but in our power to live as Jews.

American Israel flag kippa 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
American Israel flag kippa 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
As a child, I never understood how Passover, the holiday of freedom, imposed so many restrictions. How could Judaism celebrate our liberation from Egypt by limiting the foods we could eat, forcing us to recline, and mandating a lengthy retelling of the tale – at two Sedarim in the Diaspora. I was confused by a fundamental philosophical distinction, not understanding that “freedom to” is as valuable as “freedom from.”
“Freedom to” is affirmative, allowing us to do, to build, to flourish. “Freedom from” is negative, protecting us and enabling us without guiding us. Perhaps the classic example of “freedom from” comes from America’s first constitutional amendment, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Great. The amendment takes the government out of the religion business – although anyone who knows anything about the US knows that this supposed “wall” between church and state is low and porous, not high and impregnable.
Still, the real challenge starts with “freedom to” – namely, what kind of religion or society or life do we choose when nothing is mandated? That freedom to choose is precious and what Passover celebrates.
So here is where the Zen of baseball taught me to appreciate Passover. Kids playing with a ball can only play for so long with no rules – and the older they are the less patience they have for such unstructured play. But develop some rules, impose some structure and, poof, you’ve got baseball – or basketball or football or soccer – games of great fascination and engagement.
Just as humans do best in tribes or groups, we also do best with rules and structures. Unfortunately, today, we moderns, especially Americans, are so busy embracing our freedoms many forget our responsibilities and lose our moorings. Even the once solid bonds of family have become fluid, contingent, all too easily dissolved.
Too much “freedom from” makes everything up for grabs and subject to debate, creating a gravity-free zone that often feels as meaningless as it is weightless. How else can we explain that the freest societies are also often the most neurotic, the most unhappy, with tens of millions escaping into drugs, both legal and illegal, or wallowing in misery, or promiscuously therapy shopping seeking some quick fix or instant community? My mother often warned us, “if you’re too open-minded, your brains fall out.” Passover echoes that message. We celebrate chag hacherut, the holiday of freedom, with commandments to remember, to be rooted, to be connected. We find liberation every Seder, year by year, by retelling the tale, linking ourselves to the past through words and through deeds, ritualizing our memories, then building to communal expressions of joy. It makes sense that magid, the telling, occurs before the rounds of singing at the end.
And it makes sense that we start by celebrating our freedom from slavery and end by affirming our freedom to be Jewish, to build community, and to find meaning in taking responsibility.
The writer is professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. His latest book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was just published by Oxford University Press.