Parshat Bo – Negative freedom, positive freedom

Real freedom is positive freedom with a purpose and a mission.

Torah scroll (photo credit: ROOM404.NET)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: ROOM404.NET)
The Torah tells us about the wondrous, one-time occurrence of the Exodus from Egypt using festive language: “It came to pass at the end of four hundred and thirty years, and it came to pass in that very day, that all the legions of the Lord went out of the land of Egypt...
“It came to pass on that very day, that the Lord took the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt with their legions.” (Exodus 12: 41-51) A difficult period had passed; one of slavery and degradation, a time when Jews were oppressed and crushed as individuals and as a nation. Even we, as those reading the story thousands of years later, breathe a sigh of relief when the hard part of the story is over.
The Exodus from Egypt is an event of tremendous significance for every Jew. These were the days when the Jewish nation sensed God’s special hashgaha (providence) and His dedicated care, when He liberated us from Egyptian enslavement “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”
This is not just a national event, but one of great importance for all of humanity until this very day. Nothing like it has ever happened – an entire nation being liberated at once from slavery. The power and significance of human freedom are clear in the story of the Exodus and bequeath understandings regarding man and his freedom.
Indeed, it is no secret that many of those who have worked to attain freedom, those who worked to abolish slavery in the United States and those who worked to liberate the masses from the hands of despotic kings in Russia, Europe and elsewhere, were inspired by the story of the Exodus.
Therefore, this is a significant story not only for the Jewish people but for all of humanity.
We can learn about freedom from the phrase that repeats itself several times in the story: “Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me.” These words are uttered by Moses, the esteemed leader, when he approaches Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and conveys the message of God commanding him to send His people forth, and adds the word meaning “so that they may serve Me.” The liberation has a purpose.
Being set free is not only to remove Pharaoh’s yoke but to enable the nation to actualize the lofty ideal of worshiping God.
Philosophers of the 20th century frequently discussed an important differentiation between two freedoms: negative freedom and positive freedom. Negative freedom meant removal of all external obstructions, such as slavery, despotic rule, etc., which prevent man from actualizing his desires. This freedom is negative in that it has nothing other than negating external obstruction. Positive freedom expresses more than this. It not only negates external obstructions, but it contributes something toward man’s ability to attain his goals.
Meaning, whoever merits positive freedom is free and has the ability and tools to work toward attaining goals, whatever they may be.
When Moses conveys God’s words to Pharaoh, “Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me,” he is expressing the kind of freedom he seeks for the People of Israel. “Send forth My people” would be negative freedom that seeks only to negate Egyptian enslavement. “So that they may serve Me” is positive freedom. Being liberated from slavery to freedom has significance and content, a goal and a purpose.
The Western world learned the value of freedom from the story of the Exodus from Egypt and focused on that same negative freedom, the human aspiration to be released from all the chains that prevent man from actualizing his desires. But the Western world acquired less of the concept of positive freedom, that which not only removes those chains but also sets a goal and a purpose and sends man on an internal and sincere journey toward worshiping God.
Real freedom is positive freedom with a purpose and a mission.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.