What is freedom?

On Pesach we are required to tell a story to as many people as possible... This is how we experience freedom.

Haredim carry wheat-filled sacks for Pesah 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Haredim carry wheat-filled sacks for Pesah 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week many Jews of varied backgrounds and denominations will partake of the Passover seder, the one evening when all Jews, regardless of their affiliation, reflect upon their ancestor’s enslavement in Egypt, engage in discourse and inevitably ponder the same conundrum: what is freedom? There are probably many answers to this question considering the different factions that span the Jewish world, but I had an experience recently which I believe helps provide one universal answer which to some extent may satisfy all of us, or at the very least provide us with a point of reference.
My son Yakov is a 17-year-old eleventh-grader who attends a yeshiva high school in Jerusalem. He is a good boy who bears the same burdens and challenges that any free-spirited teenager does today. About two weeks ago I got a call from him in the middle of the day while I was at my yeshiva teaching.
All of his friends were going that evening to see a musical show, one in which one of his young lady friends was part of the cast, and he wanted to know if he could join them. He had already called my wife to ask her, and she diplomatically and sensibly instructed him to ask his father, confirming King Solomon’s proverb, “the wise women build their home.”
I in turn told Yakov that I was surprised by his question; after all, our family is Orthodox and according to the halacha there is a ruling of “kol isha,” which literally means “woman’s voice” and practically represents a rabbinic directive outlined in the Talmud which prohibits men from listening to women singing live, and so I explained to my son that his attending the show was indeed problematic.
Yakov responded by questioning the relevance of a ruling which was established hundreds of years ago and searching for some leniency. I explained that we are not allowed to dismiss rabbinic decrees even if they were established centuries ago, and that our subscription to the rabbinic authorities and their directives is tantamount to the foundations of our faith.
However, my son was persistent and he suggested that if he could find a rabbi in his yeshiva high school who would permit him to go, then I should give him my consent. I agreed wholeheartedly (admittedly knowing that he would not be successful in this endeavor but at the same time admiring his diligence). Ten minutes later Yakov called me to confirm what I had already known; there were no rabbis in the yeshiva who would say that it was permissible for him to attend. It seemed for the moment like the conversation was over, but it was far from over.
At this point my wife called me (incidentally, all this was going on while I was trying to teach my students in the yeshiva and, while I was not successful in delivering the material at hand, I was providing them with a play-by-play; I convinced myself that they were learning more from this dialogue than from anything I could have taught them formally from the text), informing me that she had just received a text message from Yakov which read,
“I hate Abba’s laws.”
I now struggled with an inner conflict. On the one hand I thought perhaps I should tell my son that he could go, if only to extinguish his momentary aversion toward Jewish law. I would permit this one infraction for the sake of preserving long-term devotion. Yet, I thought, how could I possibly permit something which is clearly forbidden simply because my son is frustrated?
Were we to dismiss rabbinic prohibitions out of frustration then there is no end to the amount of times our personal convenience would come before our steadfast compliance to the laws of the Torah; this was a message which I certainly did not want to impart to my young and impressionable child and so I left things as they were and resolved to confront the issue upon my return home. Little did I know that it would be resolved beforehand.
As I was traveling home my son called and in a somber tone asked, “abba, if I go to the show, will you be angry at me?” I assured Yakov that I would not be angry, but rather disappointed. Suddenly my strong, strapping son broke down crying.
“Abba”, he said, “I don’t know what to do. All of my friends are going to the show and I am the only one who would not be going, but I don’t want you to be disappointed in me.”
I found myself reminiscing over the song which is sung during the recital of the Haggadah on Passover entitled “Dayeinu,” it is sufficient. Were I only granted one moment to hear my 17-year-old son cry on the phone and express his deep desire not to disappoint his father, dayeinu!
I realized that it no longer mattered how this conversation would end or what my son decided to do, I had come to the realization that I was blessed not only to have a child who was deeply concerned with doing the right thing, but even more importantly I realized that I maintained an open and honest relationship with my son.
I encouraged Yakov to be strong and assured him that if he would overcome and follow the halacha, in the end he will look back and take pride that he had done the right thing.
My mother, who was with Yakov and overheard the course of our conversation, called me to tell me that she had never witnessed such respect and consideration from a child to a parent and how impressed she was to see that my son was sincerely concerned with understanding and considering his father’s opinion. Yakov told me that he would go to the theater, assess the situation from there, and then he would call me once he had arrived. He never called.
The next morning as my son readied himself to leave for school I came over to him and to his dismay gave him a hug and expressed how proud I was of him. He looked puzzled, so I explained: “You did the wrong thing, but you behaved the right way.”
When it appeared that he still did not understand I told him to go to school and think about what I had said. That same evening I came home late and to my dismay, my son came over, gave me a hug and explained: “Abba, this morning when you hugged me I did not react properly so I wanted to tell you that I love you.”
I asked him if he understood what I told him in the morning and if he wanted to discuss it and he assured me that there was no need to discuss what he had done wrong.
Passover reminds us that we do need to discuss, particularly with our children, hence the Hebrew title for the holiday, “Pesach” – peh (mouth) sach (talks). Pesach demonstrates that in Judaism there is no generation gap as we engage in sincere dialogue. Pesach substantiates that a parent must impart, a child must ask, and most importantly, both parties must listen. This is the only way that the past remains relevant and the future remains propitious.
A few days later I called my son’s rabbi from school to tell him about the latest encounter with my son. He informed me that he was aware of Yakov’s desire to attend the show and he had asked Yakov if he had gone. Yakov told him that he did go to the show but that I was still proud of him.
“I’m not sure why my abba is proud of me, but I know he is because he keeps telling this story to people!”
On Pesach we are required to tell a story to as many people as possible, particularly to those closest to us, those who link us to the past and who will perpetuate our future. This is how we experience freedom. This Pesach, when I sit around the seder table and my children turn to me and ask, “abba, what is freedom,” I will first glance at my son Yakov and then I will respond, “it’s hard for me to explain, but let me tell you a little story about your brother....”
The writer teaches at Yeshiva Hesder Kiryat Gat.