In our liturgy, Pesach is known as z’man cheiruteinu, the time of our freedom. We celebrate our liberation from bondage in Mitzrayim, our places of narrowness, constriction and pain. But what are we really talking about when we talk about freedom?
In her new book, Freedom: An Unruly History, historian Annelien De Deijn notes that in far right-wing America, the word has become a kind of catchphrase for the so-called “rights” of individuals to do just about whatever they want: own and openly carry assault rifles, ignore public health mandates, refuse to accept the results of a free and fair election, and brazenly bully teachers, healthcare providers and government workers. This understanding shamelessly ignores the second half of the traditional American pledge of “liberty and justice for all,” reducing freedom to selfish individual indulgence that almost always privileges the powerful over the people.
This perspective is insidious, perilous and ultimately nonsensical, because absolute freedom for some always comes at the expense of others. To live in genuine community with our neighbors is, by definition, to consider their concerns and limit our own desires for the sake of the common good. Those who flaunt their personal freedom over public health concerns are, in fact, curtailing the freedom of their neighbors. Organizations that tout themselves as promoting “freedom” in education are, instead, purveyors of an academic and ethical ignorance that diminishes us all.
In Jewish tradition, freedom is never an absolute right; it is, instead, a necessary pre-requisite for the exercise of moral responsibility. For us, there is no liberty without justice. This is why, beginning on the second night of Pesach and counting forty-nine days until the festival of Shavuot, we count the omer, numbering each day from the time of our liberation until the moment we receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. That gift of Torah is the whole point of our freedom—God breaks the shackles of Egyptian bondage so that we might take upon our ourselves—and thereby teach the rest of the world—the centrality of a binding covenant that defines what it means to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
I write this on the very first day of the counting of the omer. I pray that as we journey toward Sinai, together, we might recommit ourselves to our tradition’s understanding of freedom as an ethical obligation to care for one another and bring healing to our broken world.
Moadim L’Simchah—a continued joyous and meaningful Pesach.
How might you best exercise your freedom as we move from Pesach toward Shavuot?