In the Torah
Pesach is widely referred to as the Festival of Freedom. It’s not the Torah but the rabbis who gave it this name, calling it zeman cherutenu, ‘the season of our freedom’.
The Torah speaks not of freedom but of service and purpose. God repeatedly instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh not simply to ‘Let my people go’, but to let them go ‘to serve Me’. Freedom is not an ultimate goal, but a necessary precondition for being able to do what is just and right: affirm the dignity of all humanity, create a fair society and live in respectful equilibrium with nature.
Hence, when Moses receives the Ten Commandments at Sinai, with its writing charut, ‘engraved’, on the two tablets of stone, the rabbis play on the word: ‘Don’t read it as charut, ‘engraved’; read it as cherut, ‘freedom’. It is only through service to a higher vision that we become truly free. Yehudah Halevi encapsulate this in a famous couplet:
Avdei zeman avdei avadim heim:
Servants of fortune are servants of servants;
The servant of God alone is free.
Without explicitly using the word ‘freedom’, the laws of the Torah and their rabbinic interpretations enshrine the key principles of ‘freedoms from’. Tsedakah, the command to further social justice, is intended to free people from destitution: hunger, nakedness, homelessness and unemployment. Tsedek and mishpat, justice and law, protect society as a whole and especially the most vulnerable, the parentless and stateless, from exploitation and rejection. Chesed, faithful kindness, calls us to make compassion our underlying value in all our conduct. The requirement to speak and listen to truth, ‘Keep far from falsehood’ is intended to liberate us from the mesh of fake news and false ‘facts’ by which power has entrenched itself since time immemorial.
None of these freedoms can be taken for granted in today’s world.
Freedom from Hunger
From the first rabbinical codes onwards, Jewish law insists that we may not sit down to our own Seder and mark the festival of national liberation while leaving others behind because they can’t afford to keep the festival. The celebration of freedom must be beyond no one’s means. Among dozens of appeals, myisrael sent out the following:
The Family Nest is one of our charities preparing food packages for families in need over the holiday period. Most of the Nest’s families are single mothers facing extraordinary hardships having experienced a partner bereavement or been victims of abuse. All have severe financial struggles and worry about putting food on the table.
Freedom of speech
In his pithy, powerful book On Tyranny Timothy Snyder warns urgently against imprisonment in lies:
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticise power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
Timothy Snyder: On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century, p. 65
The novelist Ahmed Altan, imprisoned in Turkey as a punishment for being a novelist, wrote with great courage in an essay smuggled out of jail:
Yes, I am being held in a high-security prison in the middle of a wilderness. Yes, I am in a cell where the door is opened and closed with the rattle and clatter of iron…
All of this is true, but it is not the whole truth.
On summer mornings, when the first rays of the sun come through the naked bars and pierce my pillow like shining spears, I hear the playful songs of the birds of passage that have nested under the courtyard eaves…When I wake up with the autumn rain hitting the window bars, bearing the fury of northern winds, I start the day on the shores of the Danube…
I am writing this in a prison cell. But I am not in prison. I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not. You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here.
Ahmet Altan: I Will Never See The World Again
Freedom from the Fear of Freedom
In Darkness over Germany, a remarkable testament recently republished, Amy Buller described her conversations with Germans of all shades of opinion in the late 1930’s. Here she records the words of Dr Webber, a Nazi supporter, whom she describes as ‘a traitor to himself’:
‘I am not going to enter into the various aspects such as freedom from foreign domination, freedom from economic slavery, freedom from poverty or unemployment. You know of these and many others, but I want to suggest to you that the younger generation in Germany needed above all the freedom that comes from security, and the kind of security I mean is that which comes to those who give complete obedience to an authority they know they can trust. For youth in Germany the terrible time of uncertainty is over. In National Socialism they find the reason for their existence, the chance of living fully and with a purpose…’
Amy Buller: Darkness Over Germany, p. 186
It is a disturbing train of thought to consider what freedoms and truths are being betrayed in the world today in the interests of what is popularly thought of as ‘security’ and to consider what fears lie behind such reactions.