The Paradox Of Liberty: Free To Do What?

Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

When I was in yeshiva, one of my rebbeim asked me a question that I’ve never forgotten: “If you could have a 25th hour in your day, what would you do with it?” Besides for trying to gain a better understanding of his talmid, I think my rebbe was trying to help me reflect upon my priorities and value system. In today’s world, we’re so preoccupied with “saving time,” but rarely do we focus on what we’re actually saving time for.

The holiday of Pesach is primarily focused upon the idea of “liberty.” As we refer to it in shemoneh esrei, it’s “zman cheirusainu” — the “time of our freedom.” It’s when we were redeemed by HaShem from slavery in Egypt and granted our freedom from bondage. However, what was that freedom ultimately for? What was the point and purpose of all this freedom? Why did it matter? Was it just to simply “be free” and that’s it — merely an end in itself?

This line of questioning may seem foreign to us today, when we grow up with the concept of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” being one of the most sacred ideals of our culture. But while “the pursuit of happiness” may be an important element of Western culture, the Torah doesn’t believe in merely “freedom for freedom’s sake.” With the arrival of Pesach, as we start sefiras ha’omer and head towards Shavuos and Matan Torah, we can fully appreciate the Torah’s conception of “freedom.” Pesach is not the end of the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim — it’s only the beginning. The main part of the Exodus was its place in the lead up to Matan Torah.

Pesach isn’t just about mere “nationalism,” a time to celebrate when the Jews — like any other nation in the world — first achieved “national independence.” There’s Ukrainian nationalism, Chinese nationalism, Turkish Nationalism, Brazilian nationalism etc. Pesach is about much more than just that. As Senator Joe Lieberman writes in his book, The Gift of Rest:

It may seem paradoxical that freedom is achieved by adhering to laws, but that is another great lesson of the Bible. The liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery was only the first part of God’s reentering human history. Freedom without purpose and law too often leads people to degeneracy and chaos. The Israelites and all of mankind were given their mission and destiny when Moses received the Law from God on Mt. Sinai… Our true freedom as human beings is dependent on our acceptance of the responsibility to serve God by obeying His laws.

Pesach is about us being granted our freedom as the beginning of the process towards getting the Torah and becoming the “mamleches kohanim vi’goy kadosh” — “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Part one of Pesach is intricately connected with part two of Matan Torah.

This brings us to our main idea, namely, that there can be no freedom without law. Freedom without the law is anarchy. The freedom of Pesach was balanced and kept in check by the law, order, and structure of Matan Torah. Even though we were “liberated” and given our freedom at Pesach with Yitzias Mitzrayim, we still needed Matan Torah to become Jews. The Exodus wasn’t just about running away from Egyptian slavery, but also about running towards the life of spiritual productivity which we were charged with at Sinai. The freedom of Pesach was important, but it wasn’t an end in itself. As Nelson Mandela once said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Angela Merkel echoed this sentiment when she remarked, “Freedom does not mean being free of something, but to be free to do something.” Pesach was the beginning of the process towards Matan Torah, when we dedicated ourselves to leading lives devoted towards avodas HaShem.

Freedom needs structure and order. Anybody who’s ever been on a vacation without any structure and order knows that nothing good and productive ever really comes of it. As Warren Buffett once said, “I want to leave my children with enough money to do anything, not nothing.” Freedom is great, but Pesach and Matan Torah teach us that freedom needs to be accompanied by law, structure, and order. The great historians, Will and Ariel Durant, once wrote: “Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society requires some regulation of conduct, the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos.” This Pesach, as we celebrate our freedom, let us also ask ourselves: What will we do with that 25th hour of freedom?

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