Naftali Rothenberg
Naftali Rothenberg

Faith and freedom

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Ex. 20:2)

In these few words (only nine in Hebrew) the first of the Ten Commandments lays the basis for faith. The first six (three in Hebrew) state the existence of the Lord: “I am the Lord your God.” The remainder presents the state of being that makes faith possible—freedom“who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Here the Torah sets forth the essential link between faith and freedom.

Are those who are denied freedom ipso facto deprived of faith as well?

What, then, of the faith of the subjugated, of the oppressed, of those in prison? Are they and others in similar circumstances unable to believe? Certainly they do have types or experiences of belief; but theirs is not the same kind of belief that the Torah intends by “I am the Lord your God.” According to the Midrash, our ancestors in Egypt believed in something: they were sunk in idolatry, which connotes a species of belief that does not mandate freedom. They had to progress no small distance after leaving their house of bondage until they arrived at Mt. Sinai, where they saw the voices and heard the Lord addressing them with His message of faith and freedom.

Freedom is not a state of being that automatically pertains to every human being who is not incarcerated within prison walls and possesses a certificate attesting to his or her citizenship in a polity that extends equal rights to all. You can take the people out of slavery, but you cannot remove the slave mentality from the people. People are not born free men and women; no, they must acquire the quality of liberty each and every day, each time anew. The acquisition of freedom requires a perpetual investment by each individual. In the words of the Haggadah: “in each and every generation it is one’s duty to see oneself as though one had personally come out from Egypt.” The belief to which we are called is not a vain faith or the “opiate of the people,” but a belief that entails the responsibility of every human being toward him- or her and towards others. This is not the “faith of the heart,” but a belief that demands moral and ethical behavior. Consequently it applies only to free people who express their responsibility on the basis of accountability and sovereignty. By virtue of this responsibility they can choose freely to perform those actions that are appropriate and refrain from those that are not.

Some mistakenly identify freedom with liberty, a life exempt from all obligations. They say that they are “free” human beings but have never made any significant decision in a truly free and independent fashion. Freedom terrifies many because of the responsibility and obligations it entails. Hence human beings are apt to run away from it, voluntarily, to situations that deprive them of their freedom. As a result of this loss of freedom they lack the capacity for belief based on freedom and become modern idol worshippers. Beliefs that are not based on freedom sever human beings from the reality of their lives. Sometimes this is done in the guise of invoking faith to cope with reality. Such beliefs aim, not at the service of the Lord, but at the service of a fetish in which individuals serve themselves and unknowingly delude themselves as well. An alternative based on mere distraction is proposed to fend off the harsh realities of life: shooting up on a Caribbean beach is a cheaper way to believe in something.

The Torah does not seek to liberate us, even for the briefest instant, from the real world. The service of the Lord that it demands of us does not mean escaping to other realms, but repairing this world. This requires an immense effort: freedom, faith, and a perpetual ethical striving with the reality of the here-and-now.

These are matters for daily thought. Once a year, though, Passover, the festival of freedom, allows us to think about them more deeply. Each and every one of us has the opportunity to set fixed times for study, since, in the words of the Sages (Numbers Rabbah 10:8), “no man is free save one who is engaged in the study of Torah.” But what makes this holyday unique is that the meaning of the exodus from slavery to freedom is examined in the bosom of the family. The family is a setting in which there are adults and children, problems, and responsibilities; it has to have direction and a capacity to cope. It can also be the source of the personal power of each of its members and the inspiration for their search for meaning.

The Seder night, with the family gathered around the table, is not a lecture, a class, or a learned paper. It is rather supposed to be an event that combines the story of the national ethos, the joy of wine and song, fellowship and family solidarity, and . . . good food. It exemplifies the joke that boils down all of Jewish history into three short phrases: “They tried to annihilate us. We survived. Let’s eat!”

Freedom does not remove us from the real world. No, it is learned from and made comprehensible by each and every element of the world: mind, the intellectual element, is represented by the narrative of the exodus from Egypt; emotions, by the wine, the songs, the joy; and the body, by the festive meal. We do not stop at fine words about abstract freedom, but endeavor to make freedom part of our daily reality and to make ourselves into free men and women in every of our lives, the difficult and the pleasant alike.

On the personal level, we face a challenge that is eminently within our grasp: to be free men and women, to give a meaning based on belief and morality to that “who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” On the national level, we have a vocation that stems from our heritage, our deliverance from slavery, our arrival at Mt. Sinai, and our success, despite formidable obstacles, in removing the slave mentality from ourselves and returning to be once again a free people in our land.

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg is the rabbi of Har Adar township, Israel, and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute
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