The word freedom seems to demand an exclamation mark. What is freedom? The rabbinic sages referred to Pesach as z’man cheiruteinu, ‘the season of our freedom ’ because the Festival celebrates the liberation of our ancestors from slavery. The Exodus is our foundational narrative and defines our existence as a people – which is why we remember the Exodus, not just once a year at Pesach, but in the prayer of liberation that is recited after the Sh’ma every day, including on Shabbat, during morning and evening services. The Exodus is also a famous tale that has inspired other peoples in their struggles for liberation over the centuries, and continues to inspire oppressed peoples in our own day. When I was involved in the Anti-Apartheid movement in the 1970s and 80s, I used to participate in the annual fourth night Freedom Seder outside the South African embassy, which used a Haggadah devised by Liberal Jews, Shalom and Rachel Charikar, zichronam livrachah – may their memory be for blessing.
But the liberation of the slaves is only half the story of the Exodus: ‘Let My people go that they may serve Me’ (Exodus 9:1). The Eternal One liberated the Israelites from slavery in in order to become the servants of God. In Hebrew, the word for ‘servant’ and ‘slave’ is the same: eved (plural: avadim) – based on the root, Ayin Beit Dalet. And the word for Divine service – Avodah – is based on the same root.
We read in Pirkey Avot (6:2), the Chapters of the Sages, the collection of the wise aphorisms of the early generations of rabbis that is appended to the Mishnah, the first code of rabbinic law, edited in 200 CE, this comment on Exodus 32:16: ‘”And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved [charut] upon the tablets.” Read not charut, [‘engraved’], but cheirut [‘freedom’], for no one is free unless they occupy themselves in the study of Torah.’ According to tradition, the mitzvot, commandments, provide the framework for the free person [ben chorin] to live out their freedom.
By contrast, the notion of freedom as a ‘right’ of the individual is a product of the new society that emerged after the French revolution of 1789 banished the feudal social order, with its clarion call of Liberté, égalité, fraternité: freedom, equality, fraternity. However, even in modern democratic societies there is no such thing as absolute freedom. Unless you prescribe to the philosophy of anarchy and live as a hermit, the freedom of the individual is limited by the requirement to obey the law – which includes laws that regulate society, and ensure the protection of the rights of individuals within it.
The Exodus story teaches that all the slaves must go free. It also teaches that after the heady moment of freedom has passed, the liberated face the challenge of creating a new social order. As ‘liberated’ Liberal Jews, the challenge is very similar: to create a framework for our Jewish lives that balances personal autonomy with our responsibility towards the community. Chag Pesach Samei’ach!