Something from Law and Tradition: ‘On Freedom’
Judaism believes deeply in freedom, freedom of choice, freedom of conscience, freedom of movement, freedom of expression. But nowhere does Judaism proclaim unconditional freedom as an end in itself. ‘Freedom from’ is always connected to ‘freedom to’; there is no freedom without purpose. Thus, even as Moses repeats God’s demand to Pharaoh ‘Let my people go’, he invariably adds ‘so that they may serve Me’. Freedom without purpose is not the final destination.
This can be seen in the different meanings of the Hebrew word avad. The noun eved often means a slave, as in the sentence ‘Avadim hayyinu – We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’. The verb la’avod means to be a slave. In its causative form, leha’avid, it signifies ‘to enslave’, as in the verse ‘The Egyptians forced (vaya’avidu) the Children of Israel into harsh slavery’ (Exodus 1:13).
Yet at the same time that very same word means ‘to serve’. We are enjoined to serve God – le’ovdo – ‘with all our heart and with all our soul’. The Children of Israel are ‘avadai, My servants’, says God, ‘whom I brought out of Egypt’. Judaism understands its central spiritual purpose as the service of God.
The intriguing way in which this one word holds both meanings of ‘servitude’ and ‘service’ suggests an important truth: the only route out of slavery may indeed be service. We are enjoined to struggle for freedom in every domain of life, including freedom from tyranny, injustice, cruelty and prejudice. However if that becomes the desire for unfettered freedom to do as we will, it is liable to lead us back into a different kind of slavery, to the tyranny of our own self, its appetites, whims and fears. The people I’ve met who truly feel free and happy are those who have found meaning in service. They are not slaves, because they follow their path willingly; rather, they are servants because they commit themselves to a higher goal. That goal, in my experience, always involves a higher end: the care for people, or nature, or beauty, or art; in short, the service of God through the service of life.
Something from History
Mavis Hyman recalls Seders in Calcutta from her childhood: ‘My lasting memory is that the Seder was conducted in three languages, first in Hebrew (because that’s the tradition), next in Arabic (for my father, whose parents were from Baghdad) and in English (for my mother and the younger generation, who were taught in the local Jewish girls school.)’ And how long did all this take? ‘Oh hours, Jonathan, hours! But we had a strange competition: who stayed up – in my parents’ generation – the longest. It was a great merit to stay up late. But what we loved so much was the Charoset, which we made from date juice. The dates were soaked, boiled down, then squeezed (which is easier if you have a press).’
So even the very language of the Seder reflects our wanderings and migrations.
I have never tried this (yet!) but it might make an interesting opening to a Seder to invite participants to prepare in advance their personal definition of freedom in the form of a tweet. A tweet is limited to 140 characters, including spaces; so if ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ the responses should prove engaging. You might allow a photograph as an attachment, or even a reference to a poem or quotation. The ‘tweets’ could either be offered all at the same time to create a dialogue. After all, there is a strong case that the Seder is based on the Greek symposion, a Platonic debate on a pre-set topic. Or they could be shared one or two at a time at key points during the Seder, whenever the subject of freedom appears in the Haggadah.