Jewish tradition so highly values freedom that we generally don't even allow ourselves to question why. What is it about freedom that is so important to us?
In essence, this is the issue that we come to address each and every Passover, the holiday that is also known in Jewish tradition as the Festival of Freedom. The primary theme of the haggadah that we read at the Passover seder is essentially identical to the primary theme of the Torah itself — the centrality of freedom as the essential condition precedent to any meaningful existence.
By dramatizing the entire story of our liberation from bondage we teach ourselves to value what is otherwise so easily taken for granted. Freedom, like air, is generally something that we notice only when we don't have it. In order to learn to value freedom when it appears to be a limitless commodity, it is essential to remind ourselves of what life can be like without it. And, in the Jewish tradition, a life without freedom is a life of slavery—a life in which one is no longer a full partner in determining one's fate because one no longer has responsibility for his own actions.
In Jewish tradition our essential humanity is defined entirely by accepting responsibility. One cannot enter into a covenant with God, one cannot serve God, one cannot sanctify one's own life, without first having the liberty to make that choice in the first place. When that free will is placed in the hands of others, we are relinquished of our ability to serve that divine purpose. Service that is conscripted is merely "avodat parech" (hard labor).
Sources of modern enlightenment reached the same conclusions in a very similar manner. Just as Jews saw liberty as a precondition for entering into a covenant with God, 17th century English philosopher John Locke enumerated the inalienable rights of man to include the right to liberty essentially because without individual liberty there is no basis on which to enter the social contract necessary for creating rule with the consent of the governed.
However, the Jewish notion of freedom differs from the enlightened belief in liberty on this essential point. For Jews, freedom is not merely an individual right to pursue one's own self-interest but a national mission to serve higher values. While individuals in the enlightenment tradition must be free to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as the basis for their social contract with their governments, Jewish tradition requires national freedom as a precondition to creating a social contract - a brit - between the Jewish people and our God. The purpose of our labor is not to pursue individual happiness but to pursue communal justice.
In other words, freedom is not about personal consent; it is about national mission.
Our Torah thus has us relive the story of freedom not as a personal journey, but as a national pursuit. It is not the story of freeing individuals from slavery, but of freeing a subordinated nation in search of the promise that they can find the one corner of the world where they can control their own national destiny to serve as a light to the other nations.
As we see time and time again in the Torah, freedom does not necessarily lead directly to happiness. In fact, often the Israelites found that life as a subordinated nation in a foreign land afforded greater material comfort than the Israelites had after securing their freedom - the tastes and comforts of Egypt were always a source of nostalgia to the Israelites in their wanderings in the desert. Freedom does, however, lead to meaning — and that has much more enduring value.
To be a free nation in our own land has been the quest of the Jewish people from the beginning. Our journeys and wanderings toward freedom have not necessarily been easy, but they continue to define the Jewish people and our willingness to sacrifice in order to secure the freedom that enables us to pursue justice and serve our highest values.
Jeff Cymet is the Rabbi of Kehilat Tiferet Shalom, The Masorti Congregation of Ramat Aviv. Prior to becoming a rabbi, Jeff was an international lawyer, primarily in Israel and East Asia, and served as Legal Advisor to the Minister of Justice.
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