Passover reflections

Passover reflections

Freedom is a tricky entity.

It can open avenues of positive imagination and creativity because a free people’s potential belongs ultimately to them and need not answer to a master who may limit that potential.

This is why the Haggadah must open with questions. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that if a person celebrates Pesach alone, he must ask himself the questions that lead into the story of the Exodus. The right to question, the ability to challenge authority, is the sign that a person ultimately is free. As long as an authority can say, “Keep that unacceptable idea to yourself,” you are not free. Therefore our Festival of Freedom must start with questions, which are always in some way subversive.

Where, however, are the limits of freedom? Here I refer mostly to freedom of speech, because actions taken by people who regard themselves free to harm others are limited by law. Should people, however, be free to use hate speech, for example?

In some states, if not most, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. If the speech is connected to an act, let us say a beating, the tendency is to punish the act more severely. Only if the hate speech constitutes “fighting words” that would almost inevitably lead to violence – a hard thing to prove – it is basically allowed. It appears that the nice aspects of freedom are easy to deal with, but the less salutary ones are not. Over and over we are told that the answer to badly used free speech is good use of it. But there is no guarantee that the malicious will not win over the good.

Free to Be a Slave

The holiday of Pesach knows something about the quandary of freedom.

There was a time that our forebears were idol worshippers, and it didn’t take very long for them to return to that state, despite having seen the splitting of the sea and the giving of the Torah. They clearly were free of the bondage of Egypt, but something apparently still was missing.

What was missing, I think, was freedom not only from something, but freedom for something. Without there being a goal or mission, these recently freed slaves could only imagine being free to be what they had been before the Exodus: slaves to some visible authority. In such a situation, once Moses disappeared, the Golden Calf would not be far behind. The Haggadah’s story begins with “Our forebears were idol worshippers,” and so they were.

We should not view idol worship as the illogical and stupid act depicted in Isaiah’s mockery of it:

“For his use one cuts down cedars; One chooses plane trees and oaks. He sets aside trees of the forest; Or plants firs, and the rain makes them grow.

“All this serves a man for fuel: He takes some to warm himself, And he builds a fire and bakes bread. He also makes a god of it and worships it, Fashions an idol and bows down to it!” (Isa 44:14-15)

Rather, ancient idolatry considered the idol only a representation of a god, but not the god itself. Prostration to the idol was not to the wood or stone, but to the god these images represented. The ancients also had a sense of transcendent gods.

So wherein lay the great sin of idolatry?

Idolatry’s fault is that it limits our conception of the Ultimate to proportions only as large as our own selves. This inhibits our ability to imagine beyond our limits, when, in fact, the Ultimate has no confines or boundaries.

To become a worshiper of God is to become totally free. Such worship allows us to imagine creations that do not yet exist but can be made real, and to conceive of worlds yet to be created in partnership with our Creator.

Idolatry and the worship of God put before us the choice of being free to be slaves or to be free as God has willed us to be free: to join with God in the continued creation and improvement of the world. Pesach encourages us to choose fulfilling ourselves as Images of God.

Free to be Responsible

All this indicates an important connection between freedom and responsibility.

The Talmud presents a fascinating midrash that seeks to explain an oddity of language found in the narrative of the giving of the Torah. As the Israelites prepare to receive the Torah, we are told: “Moses brought the people out to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17). The term I have translated as “foot” actually is an improper translation of the Hebrew. Rather, the word in Hebrew means “underneath.” The image this produces is of a nation gathered underneath a mountain that is being held over their heads.

And indeed that is what the midrash claims occurred: God held the mountain over Israel’s heads and said, “If you accept the Torah, well and good. If not, here will be your grave.” Rav Aha bar Yaakov, a great Talmudic sage, said, “When the Jewish people sinned, this gave them the right to say to God, ‘You may not account us responsible since we accepted the Torah only under duress.'” In short, the midrash indicates that rather than attaining true freedom at the Exodus, the Israelites were forced into a responsibility they were not ready to accept freely and internally.

But the midrash doesn’t end on this unhappy note. Rather, Rava, a later Talmudic scholar, responds that the Jews did accept the Torah of their own free will when the events of Purim ended in their favor.

What message is this strange midrash trying to convey?

There is a form of freedom that is significant only when it is combined with freely accepted limits. Those limits constitute responsibility. At Sinai, God was trying to bring together freedom and responsibility, the only combination that can make us truly free, even if it meant forcing the Israelites into that form of freedom. The moment was too early; and though the people said “We shall do and obey,” it was only under duress, without understanding how the limitations of responsibility are necessary for true freedom. It was only when the Jewish people experienced what untrammeled freedom lacking any moral responsibility might mean for them – genocide and extinction – that they accepted the Torah freely and willingly.

God did not force them into that choice. Indeed, God does not make a “public appearance” in the Purim story at all. Rather, the sight of freedom unlinked to responsibility and turned bestial is what changed the Jews’ hearts.

Freedom Dies Without Responsibility

There is a world yearning for freedom.

Its epicenter right now – though not its only place – is the Middle East.

I believe that people who value freedom were filled with hope that another world was in formation in North Africa and Syria. But look what it has come to. Syria is drowning in its own blood. Egypt is back to where it started. Only Libya and Algeria seem to be heading in the direction of a constitutional government in which freedom and responsibility join hands. In those places there is hope. It is clear, however, that freedom dies when it is not linked with responsibility, and hope dies with it.

For us, members of Jewish communities in the United States and Israel, freedom is a given. Our two communities are the freest Jewish entities in our long history. We are at liberty to express our views on all the important issues of our day, and especially on those issues that affect us directly as a people. In Israel, such issues are the balance between peace and security; the responsibility of all Jews living in the state to protect and contribute to Israeli society equally; and the practicalities of Israel defining itself as a Jewish and democratic state.

For Jews in the United States, such matters as Jewish continuity, community solidarity, the depth and meaning of Jewish education, and our relationship with Israel are at the forefront of our conversations.

How do we hold these conversations?

Given the freedom to speak our minds, too often the conversations about these important and deeply felt subjects descend into loud critique, and from there into ad hominem attacks. This is because our freedom is not always linked to a singularly important responsibility: the responsibility to protect each other’s humanity and the name of the Jewish people. So we should not be surprised when we see organizations disallowing speakers and discourse on Jewish matters to have their day in court, as it were – and this is coming from both the right and left wings of our community.

Death of this discourse will make Jewish life produce less light and fewer solutions – only heat.

So here is my Pesach prayer this year: Let us bring freedom and responsibility together, and keep alive the lively but civil Jewish tradition of “dissent for the sake of Heaven.”

If God will grant us this gift, then hope, life, and even peace may flourish. Then we truly will be free.