Defining Freedom

It is considered a universal right, yet its reach is relatively limited. It has been the cause of a thousand wars, countless lives lost, and, nonetheless, its dream continues to live on. Because, for those that are lacking it, freedom promises to be the realization of the paradise they seek.

            Freedom fighters throughout the ages went to their deaths with this mantra on their lips. From the signing of the Magna Carta almost a millennia ago, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and authoritarianism in modern times, freedom has for long been revered as a fundamental human right; one worth fighting – and dying for.

            Different cultures and countries across the world celebrate their respective achievement of this goal. Whether its fireworks and BBQ’s in the USA, or kite-flying in India, everyone has their way to express their love of this universal value – freedom.

            The Jewish nation is no different, with its celebration of Passover and the Passover Seder. Celebrating the events of over three millennia ago; the Ten Plagues, and subsequent exodus from Egypt, Passover has remained for all of time a symbol of Judaism and man’s eternal quest for freedom. Its observance by Jews is also – for the most part – paradoxical.

            Other nations commemorate their sovereignty with displays of their – well, sovereignty. Flags hoisted proudly, military parades, along with other expressions of nationalism, show to all a nation’s independence and freedom. An aura of joviality, feelings of gaiety, joyfulness and laughter abound in the air. It’s the appearance of a free and strong republic, and the picture portrayed on Independence Day.

            Contrast that to a Jew’s celebration of Passover; their Independence Day. From the rivers of Babylon to the streets of Czarist Russia, from the ruins of a Holy Temple to the stench of death in Auschwitz, Jews have continuously observed these days marking their freedom.

It’s a question that begs to be asked – what freedom? Is it the freedom of 6 million innocent deaths? Or perhaps, the exile of a proud and noble people from their promised land? Is that freedom?

In order to understand this enigma, one must probe into how Jews define freedom.

What is freedom? Is it a physical state of being in which a human is free to make their own decisions and choices? Oxford Dictionary defines freedom as the, “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.”

That is the foremost ideal for so many – the power to determine their own destiny. The ability to think for one’s self, and the control that one has over their own choices, are contributing factors to that objective. Looking at the Western World today, it would seem that, by and large, it has succeeded in realizing this goal.

However, considering all aspects of Western life, can one actually make this contention? The suicide rate in the United States is 13 for every 100,000 people, and steadily rising. Is that what Oxford defines as the power to act as one wants? Does anyone truly want to die?!

Strict societal rules in a variety of settings, force us to conform, whether in our speech, thoughts, or actions. How many times have many of us thought that – “we’d just like to escape from all of this.” Is that freedom?

Freedom of expression is crucial for society’s success. However, it is not the essential element in being truly free. From a Jewish perspective, true freedom is not limited to our physical selves. True freedom takes place in our hearts and minds, unrestrained by any outer confines.

When the Jews left Egypt, they embarked on a fifty day journey. It was a journey that led them from slavery to servitude. From a bondage to Pharaoh, to an eternal bond with G-D. It was a path leading to the aforementioned true freedom.

Our internal struggles can, at times, seem bigger than ourselves. It can be easier to drift the way of society, simpler to succumb to temptation – regardless of how we actually think. Tannaitic teachings tell us that the one way to win this battle, is by service to G-D. A free man is the one who engages in Torah study, was their credo.

Connection to spirituality allows oneself to lift him/herself above circumstances, to look beyond current challenges. Religion establishes instructions, helping one to resist enslavement to temptation, maintaining guidelines on how to conduct a lifestyle that is greater than a fleeting impulse. No matter the circumstances, wherever the situation; with faith in the picture, a person can always be free.

The Jewish nation hasn’t had many breaks in its many years of exile. From our banishment from the Land of Israel, to the blazing fires of a Holocaust inferno, our nation has survived hell on earth. Yet, no enemy, and no tragedy, was ever able to break our spirit. For close to 2000 years we may not have had national flags to wave, but we’ve had the freedom of spirit that continues to sustain our people. That is Jewish freedom; that is the lesson of Passover.

It’s the 21st Century, and this ideal continues to live on. At times, the world outside seems to be growing progressively wilder, as the divide between good and evil blurs at a terrifying pace. In addition, with the ever-rushing speed that daily life seems to be taking; at times, one can feel that everything is spiraling out of control. Passover reminds us – to paraphrase Harry Truman – that the buck stops by us for control of our lives.

And so, as you lift your wine-glass on Seder night, remember the eternal freedom that you are commemorating. It’s a freedom that has never been shackled. It’s a freedom that will forever live on. It’s the freedom of you.

About the Author
I am a student of Jewish thought and philosophy. I am also a freelance journalist and published author, having authored the book, The Rabbi from The Lower East Side, and having been published in numerous media outlets. I am on the advisory board of the Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth Foundation.
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