Part 13 in Jewish Wisdom for the Everyday Man: a “guide for the perplexed” through the modern maze of morality from ancient Jewish Sages.
Freedom. It’s the backbone of democracies around the world, a promise of religions and the hope of slaves, addicts and teenagers. What is this thing we call freedom and where can we find it?
The Jewish sages gave plenty of thought to the elusive cry for liberty that sparks revolutions around the globe and has been commemorated for thousands of years by the Jews on Passover.
Rabbis noticed three different kinds of freedom in Torah.
The first is Chofesh, which in modern Hebrew we use for going on vacation. It means take a break from work. When a slave is set free from having to work for his master, the Torah calls it Chofesh (Ex. 21:2).
Chofesh is the most basic kind of freedom. It may be the end of physical labor but has no moral or spiritual significance.
Another word we find in the Bible for freedom is Dror, which is also the Hebrew name for a sparrow. Like a bird that is free to migrate to warmer climates and better feeding and nesting conditions, Dror is being freed-up to move to a better situation.
Dror is the freedom of the Jubilee year when Jews can return to their family lands which were given as an inheritance in the division of the tribes at the time of Joshua. Every fifty years Jews who were forced to sell their lands, or sold into slavery to pay off debts, are given the chance to go back home where they can rebuild their lives.
In English we usually use the word liberty to describe this kind of Jubilee freedom. The verse engraved on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, “And you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land,” is in reference to the Torah’s Jubilee year.
Liberty (Dror) is one of the most valued privileges in our modern world and is the backbone of many democracies like the US where every citizen has the right to move up the social or financial ladder and improve their lives and practice their religion. These rights are usually protected by laws and constitutions. Civil liberty in modern society is all well and good, but according to the sages it is not the ultimate form of freedom.
Cherut is the Hebrew word for that because Cherut is not just an end to physical labor, nor is it a way to get out of debt and improve your situation.
Cherut is the freedom within to live a life with purpose.
Let my people go!
That is why Passover is called Zeman Cherut’anu, the “Appointed Time of Our Freedom.” Passover is not just the celebration of our deliverance from slavery in Egypt but a commemoration of our coming together as a people and one nation under God.
When Moses declared, “Let my people go,” he wasn’t just asking for a break from slavery but for his people to become a nation free to establish its own faith, culture, and land. Passover for Israel is a celebration of the freedom to be God’s people, worship and serve Him how and where he chooses. It is not only physical, economic or political liberty, as important as these can be.
Freedom is slavery!
Here’s a fun fact. The Hebrew word for “slave” throughout the entire Exodus story is Avd. Then, after all the pain and plagues, the Lord tells Israel that He’s bringing them out of slavery in Egypt to become His slaves (Avd) (Ex. 3:12)! When God sends Moses to demand from Pharaoh (Ex. 4:23) to “Let my people go,” a lot of people don’t read the rest of the sentence. He adds “so that they can become My slaves (here again Avd which is sometimes translated “to worship” see below). God tells Moses to use the same word in this single sentence to taunt Pharaoh and his self-deceived divinity complex!
In Rabbinic literature, the sages say that worship and service (both Avd) to God is freedom, but Avd to man is a curse. Avd comes to mean the service of worship on the Day of Atonement by the High Priest on Israel’s holiest day. God calls His children “My slaves” (Lev. 25:55).
It was at the moment when the Children of Israel had just crossed the Red Sea, escaped Pharaoh’s armies and were clear free, that Moses is called “God’s slave” (Ex. 14:31). In fact, all of God’s people are called Avd, like King David (Psalm 78:70) who goes on to say that everyone should aspire to be a slave to God and serve Him with joy (Psalm 100:2).
Modern man is not free in this way because he is insecure as a result of being bound and burdened with the things of this world, things that are unstable, corruptible and fleeting.
To paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, It is not some thing that gives meaning to life, it’s a soul lived freely for the immutable God that can make some things meaningful.
I am indebted to Nachum Amsel and his Encyclopedia of Jewish Values for his invaluable source materials found in this article.
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