As Pesach bears down on us—or is it we who are bearing down on it?—it seems natural for our thoughts to turn to the concept of freedom that serves as the beating heart of the Passover story. We are, after all, bidden by Scripture not once or twice but on four different occasions to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt to our children in the course of our holiday observance…and the concept of freedom from bondage is surely the foundation stone upon which all the rest lies. But like all great ideas—like justice, for example, or like beauty or truth—freedom is an easier idea to embrace than actually to define.
Has Indiana (and the other nineteen states that have passed similar “religious freedom” laws) made its bakers more free by allowing them legally to refuse to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples if their religious scruples prevent them wholeheartedly from embracing the concept of marriage equality? Or has it made them less free by declining to assist them in shucking off their burdensome prejudice against gay people and thus concomitantly allowing them to proceed through life weighed down by their own intolerance? (If you’re not sure how you feel, let me refocus the issue by asking if those same bakers would be more free if they were permitted not to serve Jews because they feel religiously compelled not to “participate” in Jewish religious ceremonies, including weddings? Or would they be less free…and for the same reason, mutatis mutandis, I gave above regarding gay people and wedding cakes?) Did the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 make our nation more free by constraining businesses eager to maintain a drug-free environment from firing Native American workers who test positive for peyote usage if those workers used that drug in the context of Native American ritual? Or did it make our country less free by making it that much more likely for our Indian population to become enslaved to drugs that are illegal for the rest of society because they are deemed intensely dangerous? Are the citizens of Norway and Sweden less free because their governments have passed laws forbidding kosher slaughter, thus depriving the Jews in their midst of the possibility of living lives fully in conformity with the ritual requirements of their faith? Or are they more free because, absent this legal restriction on their activities, some of the above might have continued to slaughter animals in the manner of their ancestors for millennia…but without being able to prove, because no one knows how to do so categorically and definitively, that the animals slaughtered instantly with razor-sharp machetes suffer less pain than those killed in the industrial-style abattoirs favored by the Scandinavians? People see all of the above issues (except maybe the one about bakers and Jewish wedding cakes) from both of the sides mentioned…but both sides can’t be right because legislation simply cannot make you more and less free at the same time. And thus we see just how simple it is to embrace the concept of freedom and how difficult actually to define it in the context of modern life.
On the level of the individual, the question of what constitutes true liberty is equally complicated. Is freedom really just another word for nothing left to lose? When Janis sang it out, I surely believed it. (Was the fact that she had already died by the time her song topped the U.S. singles chart a contributing factor to how taken back then I was with the song and with that specific definition of freedom? Maybe it was—being free of the world and its woes certainly signaled, at least on some level, to the adolescent me that she was entitled to an opinion about the ultimate meaning of freedom! And the fact that she didn’t write the song—“Me and Bobby McGee” was written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster and was originally recorded by, of all people, Roger Miller—couldn’t possibly have mattered less to myself at eighteen.) But, now that I rethink the matter…do I really think that? Is freedom achieved when one can act as one wishes without having to care about, or even to know of, the consequences of one’s actions? Are free individuals the ones whose actions are prompted solely by their desire to do some specific thing at some specific moment, acting precisely as though they really did have nothing to lose by their actions no matter how outlandish or unpopular or bizarre?
Or is freedom something else entirely? At its most basic, the story of Passover is the story of an enslaved nation that yearned to be free and, indeed, the story we tell at Passover is the story of Israel’s transformation from a nation of slaves bound in service to the king of Egypt into a nation of free men and women willing and able to seek their own destiny without reference to the needs or wishes of others. But, contra Kris and Janis (and, yes, Roger too), the Israelites had everything to lose by crossing the sea to freedom. They had been slaves…but slaves with homes and gardens, with families and food, with jobs and the benefits that came along with those jobs. They were not free to do as they pleased…but they were free not to have to pay taxes on their (non-existent) incomes or pay rent for their (employer-provided) homes or to worry about the things that we in our day spend all our time worrying about. In other words, they were free from many of the burdens of daily life…but they were not free to worship as they chose, to come and go as they saw fit, to work wherever and whenever they wished, to assemble as they liked, or to chart their own course forward through life as individuals and collectively as a nation—and that, in the end, is what made them slaves. For a while, things simmered on a low heat. But then, eventually, their misery attracted the attention of God “Who heard their groaning and remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” The rest of the story I suppose you all know.
Like most of my readers, I feel burdened by the endless exigencies of daily life—by the bills and the taxes and the countless other obligations that devolve upon us in the course of a year—and would like nothing more than magically to be freed of them all (other, of course, than in the way we shall all eventually be). But real freedom, I have come to believe, has nothing to do with money…and everything to do with the pursuit of personal destiny. I would like it if my car magically filled itself up with gas whenever the tank runs low. That would free me from having to drive to a gas station and fill it up myself…but that would not make me free in the true sense of the word, just free from some irritating chore I’d be just as happy not to have to do or to remember to do. What makes me truly free…and I do think of myself as a truly free individual…what truly makes me free is the freedom I have to pursue my own destiny, to travel forward towards the personal redemption in God that awaits all who seek it, to live my life in accordance with the values and strictures Scripture places upon the faithful…without needing the approval of others, the endorsement of the government, the affection of all those who would be delighted if I abandoned my faith and joined theirs instead, the esteem of people who find the very existence of the House of Israel in our day somehow to be offensive to their own religious bearing, or the support of people who for some reason feel personally prohibited from just leaving me be to live according to my own lights and the requirements of the covenant that compels me personally to serve the God of Israel as a willing worshiper.
In other words, freedom—the kind of freedom that rests at the core of the Pesach story—is the freedom to step into the briskly-flowing stream of moments that leads from history to destiny, from the past to the future, from the ancient Tabernacle to the future Temple, from Sinai to Jerusalem, and from long-since-gone past to still-to-come future. It means not to obsess about whether to eat beans or rice on Pesach or to become so lost amidst the trees that the majesty of the forest eludes you entirely or even mostly, but truly to see yourself personally both as a harbinger of redemption and a sentinel standing guard over the divine values that the world out there more often pretends to respect than actually allows to guide our nation forward. Like most of us, I would be pleased to be in charge of the universe. But being free has to do with self-governance and the right to self-determination, not with the ability to dominate others.
Being free means being free to speak out and to speak up. It means being free to insist that our elected officials honor their own promises and stick to their own words. (I’m obviously thinking this week of the President’s oft-repeated unambiguous promise that he would personally prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear power, but the notion of insisting that our officials consider their word to be their bond should be sacrosanct in every context and always.) It means losing our inhibitions about being “too Jewish” in public, in the sometimes harsh glare of the streetlamps that illuminate the world outside our community. And being free means not feeling obliged—or even inclined—to justify our pursuit of the great goals of Jewishness to their natural ends. We come, obviously, from a nation of compulsive explainers. That, I suppose, is just who are—that and a nation of compulsive complainers and debaters—and I don’t suppose anything can be done about it. But feeling free of the need endlessly to self-justify in the public square—that, in my estimation, is a big part of what it would mean for diasporan Jews truly to be free.
I love this time of year. (I’d love it more if I were totally certain no more snow is coming, but what can I do about that?) I love the feel of the house being spotless, of the Pesach dishes all being in place on their Pesach shelf-liner things, of the cases of wine in the living room beckoning (is this too weird to say?) and encouraging me to set my own inhibitions aside and truly to tell the story to my children yet again…and to remind them that being free isn’t acting free or doing free only, but actually feeling oneself caught up in the service of the God Who functions as the Freedom of the World, as the Author of its history and its destiny…and also as the Author as well of the destiny of the House of Israel as we make our way through the millennia to the great dénouement that will eventually surprise us all actually by coming and ushering us to land as different from this world of dust and mud as was once Eretz Yisrael, a land flowing with milk and honey, from Egypt and its siren stewpots.