Jonathan Feldman
Jonathan Feldman
Living in Israel

Who Is Free?

Passover is the holiday of freedom, but what is freedom?  We view freedom as the foundation of modern society, as the most important value.  So much so that the founding fathers of the United States of America set down liberty as one of the three fundamental G-d given rights of the human being.  Naftali Imber concluded Israel’s National Anthem ‘Hatikva’ with the words ‘to be a free people in our land.’  Yet when we start to think about what freedom means, it is not so simple.  When we think of freedom, we think of being released from constraints, we think of having many choices in life available to us.  Sir Isaiah Berlin, in his inaugural lecture at Oxford University entitled ‘Two Liberties’ called this Negative Liberty.

Modern life has brought multiple alternatives to the modern consumer, enabling innumerable options that would never have been imagined in the past.  But can there be too much freedom?  Have you ever gone into the supermarket to buy toothpaste, and felt totally overwhelmed?  You can choose between dozens of types of toothpaste, whitening, sensitive teeth, mouthwash, mint flavor, enamel, gum health and more.  In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz argues that when people are faced with more choices they are less likely to make any decision at all.  The more choices employees are presented with in deciding on an investment plan for their retirement fund, the less likely they are to invest.  They will simply not act at all rather than having to decide.  Or take the case of the French revolution when the people threw off the yoke of the king and his authoritarianism.  The people liberated themselves from the constraints of the king, but the movement quickly spiraled into chaos and terror, with everyone doing as they wished.

The second type of freedom, Sir Isaiah Berlin mentions, is Positive Liberty.  This can be understood as self-mastery, and the capacity to know what one would like to choose, and the ability and discipline to be able to follow through and achieve the goal of that choice.  Let’s consider two scenarios.  The first scenario is an all-too common one among the wealthy athletes and Hollywood stars, or those suddenly become rich.  Joe had little money, but then he acquires a large inheritance.  He now has the means to do as he wishes and is particularly happy because he now has the resources to support his heroin habit and get high whenever he wants.  Yet his habit consumes his time, destroys his health and his career, and he is incapable of breaking away from it.  Joe has freedom to do whatever he wants, but is he free?

The second scenario is that of Natan Sharansky, the soviet Jewish refusenik.  In 1977 he was thrown in prison because he applied to make Aliyah, to leave the Soviet Union and to move to the homeland of his people, Israel.  He spent nine years incarcerated in the Soviet gulag, more than half of it in solitary confinement.  Yet, Sharansky managed those years with a life of meaning and purpose.  He occupied his mind by going over chess matches of the grand masters, which he had memorized.  He taught himself Hebrew and continued to grow in his religious convictions and observance through the strength from the small book of Psalms that he had with him.  When the Soviets took it away, he vanquished them by going on hunger strikes and refusing to eat until they returned his book. Sharansky was locked in a dungeon yet he exercised his Positive Liberty through sheer strength of will.  Which person is more free?

The Passover story of freedom does begin with Negative Liberty.  The Jewish people are enslaved in Egypt, forced to do back-breaking work for hours upon hours, every day of the week.  Yet the story does not end when they are finally liberated from slavery and leave Egypt.  During the Seder we drink four cups of wine which represent the four stages of freedom.  What is the final stage of freedom? “And I will take you to me as a people, and I will be to you a G-d,” the Almighty tells Moses (Exodus 6:7).  This is referring to the Jewish people being brought to Mount Sinai. Yet did Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah bring about more freedom?  One the face of it, the commandments of the Torah limited the Jews’ freedom.

To understand concept of freedom in the Torah, let’s look at the Torah’s use of the word freedom.  In modern Hebrew and in Israel, vacation is called ‘hofesh’, a time when you are free to do what you want.  The slave who is liberated is ‘hofshi’.  This is the term for freedom used in the Torah, and indeed this is Negative Liberty.  Yet in the Rabbinic literature they us the term herut, which we will see is Positive Freedom. In the Passover prayers we call Passover ‘z’man heruteinu’, the time of our freedom.  So where does herut come from?  The Rabbis make a word association between ‘harut’ which is referring to the inscribing of the ten commandments on stone, and herut, the Rabbinic term for freedom.  ‘There is no person who is more free than the person who occupies themselves with the study of Torah.’  (Ethics of the Fathers 6:2) The purpose of this association is for us to learn that the Torah is offering us a path to Positive Liberty.  Torah life and study might on the surface may seem to have many constrictions, however its purpose it to give us the values to bring meaning into our lives and the tools and self-discipline to be able to achieve life goals.  This is the freedom of Passover; the happiness that comes from actualizing ourselves through ‘herut’, through focus and self-discipline, and by imbuing our lives with purpose and meaning.  Yes, it might mean limiting our options, but sometimes to have true Liberty this is the choice we must make.

When we lived in New York City, many singles were not married and dated for years, with an unlimited pool of potential life partners to go out with.  Then we noticed an interesting phenomenon.  People who moved out of town to smaller cities with a smaller pool of potential marriage partners tended to get married within a year of when they moved.  People who are presented with a myriad of choices might have a lot of freedom, but often they will not be happy because they are presented with too many options.  Schwartz notes that too much “Freedom of choice” leads people to feel powerless and frustrated, because choosing ‘one’ among many other options means giving up the rest of the opportunities. At the same time, since people can easily change and substitute the choice, the absolute value of deciding no longer exists.  This Passover let’s focus on not just the beginning of the Passover story, the Negative Liberty, which is necessary and without which we can feel stifled, and much injustice and oppression, can occur. But let’s also appreciate the Positive Liberty of the richness of Jewish life and Torah which, when properly used, can move us toward a life of personal self-actualization through fulfilling our Divine purpose.

About the Author
Rabbi Jonathan Feldman is Community Educator for Am Yisrael Foundation, an organization that runs programming for young olim and expats from all over the world in Tel Aviv. After attending Cornell University he received his Rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University and his Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from New York University. He has lectured widely as a guest speaker on Jewish topics.