JWR Pesach
April 1, 1998 / 5 Nissan, 5758

Splitting of the Red Sea What is freedom?

The meaning and message of Pesach

By Rabbi Berel Berkovits

WHAT IS FREEDOM? It is an abstract concept, an elusive idea. Freedom from what? From hunger, poverty, persecution, exploitation? The list is endless.

Perhaps there can be no definition. Perhaps freedom is not so much a right as a concept. Perhaps, indeed. It is essentially an experience.

Ideas can he defined and analyzed; they can be articulated and verbalized. Experiences can only be lived. Can one define love --- the love of children for their parents, or parents for their children; of a man for a woman, or a woman for a man?

When Rabbi Akiva was dying, he recited the Shema prayer:"And you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart. And with all your soul, and with all your might."

His disciples asked, in wonderment: "How can you talk of love when the Romans are torturing you to death?"

"All my life," replied Rabbi Akiva, "I have been upset over this verse. I said to myself: 'When will the opportunity arise for me to fulfill it -- with all your soul -- even if He takes your soul?' And now, that the opportunity has come to me, shall I not fulfill it?"

Rabbi Akiva, who taught that love of one's fellow man is the great principle of the Torah, understood that love of G-d is an experiential reality. He did not give his students a discourse on the acceptance of suffering; he simply showed them how to die --- as he had lived, with an overwhelming love of G-d.

A way of life is not to be explained --- it is to be lived. And so it is with all experiences. Those who have lived them, understand them. "Taste and see that G-d is good," says Scripture. If you do not taste, you will not see.

AND PERHAPS, too, it is only those who have been deprived who can appreciate what they have; only those who've tasted slavery who can appreciate the flavor of freedom.

One of the most poignant expressions of man's innate longing for freedom is a short poem written in 1946 by the late Italian writer, Primo Levy:

I would like to believe in something.
Something beyond the death that undid you.
I would like to describe the intensity
With which, already overwhelmed,
We longed in those days to be able
To walk together once again
Beneath the sun.

Overwhelmed, but not overwhelmed, Primo Levy was not an Orthodox Jew. Perhaps he was not even a "traditional" Jew. But he most certainly was a spiritual person. In the face of unspeakable evil and unutterable terror, in the hell that was Auschwitz, he struggled to retain dignity, to find meaning, to remain free.

The Nazis strove to dehumanize their victims, to reinterpret all moral values, so that good became evil and evil was considered good. At the very entrance to the most appalling negation of all freedom, they emblazoned the cynical slogan: Arbeit macht frei (Work Liberates).

People like Levi proved that some values are indestructible; that longing for freedom is part of man's essential constitution.

I learned this lesson from my teacher, the late great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, rosh yeshiva of the Mirrer yeshiva in Jerusalem.

In the Book of Kings, we are told of King David's last instructions to his son. Among them was a request to devise a method of punishing Shimi ben Geira, who had committed a capital offense: "And you shall act in your wisdom," said King David, and bring about his death.

What did Solomon do? He summoned Shimi and put him under a ban. "Build yourself a house in Jerusalem, and dwell therein, and do not go out hither and thither. For on the day that you go beyond the brook of Kidron, you will surely die: you will have forfeited your life." (I Kings 2:36-37)

Three years passed uneventfully. Shimi lived peacefully in Jerusalem. But one day, two of his servants escaped. "And Shimi arose and saddled his donkey, and he went unto King Achish in Gath." He has broken his undertaking; inevitably, he dies.

"Wherein lies the wisdom of King Solomon for which he is so justifiably famous?" asked Rav Chaim Shmulevitz.

True. Shimi was instructed that he was not to leave Jerusalem. But maybe he would have complied with this restriction. Have we not heard of people, even in the twentieth century, who never ventured out of Jerusalem's Old City?

Yes, observed Rav Chayim, such a thing is indeed possible. But only when it is part of a voluntary undertaking. As soon a, Shimi was confined, as soon as he was under orders, it became an intolerable burden.

There is, perhaps, a subtle irony in the story. Just as the servants had to break free, so, too, Shimi had to escape. The wisdom of King Solomon lay in his understanding of the human psyche. He understood that man longs to be unfettered, that he needs to be untramlmpelled. He knew that Shimi must break out. That is part of man's very being.

"And the children of Israel groaned, because of the work.
And they cried out. And their supplication ascended to G-d from the work.
And G-d heard their groans.
And G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.
And G-d saw the children of Israel: And G-d knew. " -- (Exodus 2: 23-25)

The Jewish people, over 3,000 years ago, were forged in the bitter crucible of slavery. Why was this necessary? What purpose did it serve?

It was no accident of history: G-d does not allow such accidents. It was, indeed, foretold to Abraham long before it happened: "And they will enslave them, and afflict them, 400 years." Nor was it a punishment -- for what sin had they committed?

What, then, was it?

It was a lesson, a message, an experience. Without it, it seems, there could have been no Jewish people --- or at least not the people that G-d wanted them to become.

"Thus says the L-rd, the G-d of Israel: 'I made a covenant with your ancestors on the day that I took them out of Egypt, that you send free your Hebrew brother who has been sold to you." (Jeremiah 34: 13-14)

What was this covenant? How was it made?

It was the covenant of the Exodus itself, of the experience they had been through. "For the Jewish people are servants unto Me. They are My servants, who, I took out of Egypt."

And this is no mere metaphorical expression. The rabbis gave it very real halachic meaning. "My servants" -- and not servants to servants: Hence, the right of a laborer to leave his work "even in the middle of the day."

For similar reasons, its's halachically forbidden to enter into a contract which ties one down irrevocably to more than three years' employment.

Nor are the obligations of this covenant limited to fellow-Jews. "And a stranger you shall not upset, nor shall you exploit him because you know the soul of a stranger, for you were yourselves strangers in the land of Egypt."

That is the "constitution" of the Jewish nation. To know the soul of another person, to understand that person's innermost feelings. Can there be anything greater, more meaningful, more ennobling than that? Can there be any greater freedom than that?

And that is why in the Haggadah "it is the duty of everyone, in every generation, to see himself as if he personally participated in the Exodus from Egypt." Not merely a historic memory, but a living reality. Not just a vicarious perception, but a very personal odyssey. Only thus does it have real meaning.

SOME YEARS AGO, I was in Haifa and introduced to my uncle's friend. He was a small, tough-looking man; his face was gnarled. But he had young eyes, and his expression was alive.

He challenged me to guess his age. "Fifty-five," I said, for he didn't appear to be a day older than that. He laughed "I am 75," he said."And if you think I have had an `easy life' --- well, I spent three years in Auschwitz. Look, here is my number."

Suddenly, he turned to me with a look of intensity. "Young man," he said, "do you want to know how I survived? I was not particularly strong. There were people much stronger than I, and they died like flies. I survived because I believed."

"A few days after I arrived in the camp, I realized that it was hopeless. There was no conceivable chance of escape, no realistic possibility of survival. I turned to my fellow Jews, and I said to them, "Yidden, do you believe in the story of the Exodus? Do you believe that G-d took us out, into freedom from the vast concentration camp that was Egypt?"

"If you believe this, Yidden, if you really believe it, then you must believe that next week, or tomorrow, today, that all this you see now can totally disappear, and we will once again be safe and free. The barbed wire, the guards, the searchlights, the gas-chambers --- all of this can vanish tomorrow!"

"That's what I said to them," he concluded. "And that is how I survived."

I recall that short conversation to this day. Specifically, the raw energy and emotion. I'll never forget the look on that man's face; the intensity of his expression; the "naivete" of his pure faith.

I was humbled, awed, astounded. It was then that I understood, perhaps for the first time, what the Exodus really means; what it means in each and every generation, to see oneself as if you personally fled Egypt. I understood what it meant to enslaved, but to be free.

Years later, in Moscow, I came across the same phenomenon. I met an extraordinary group of young men and women -- religious refuseniks -- who made immense sacrifices to maintain their Yiddishkeit (Judaism), to learn Torah, to observe mitzvas.

It was pre-glastnost days and the gates of emigration were firmly closed. They were persecuted and endangered; harassed and hounded. From an objective point of view, these people were totally enslaved. But, in a very real sense, they were totally free.

THERE IS ALSO another dimension to freedom. Pharaoh, says the Talmud, had three men as advisors: Balam, Jethro, and Job. He passed a decree. Every boy born to the Jews shall be thrown into the Nile.

How did his advisers respond? Balam supported the decree --- and G-d punished him with death. Jethro ran away and was rewarded --- his descendent sat in the supreme Sanhedrin (court) in Jerusalem. And Job --- Job kept quiet and was punished with suffering.

And what suffering! The suffering of Job --- proverbial unto this day. The entire book of Job is an anguished outpouring of one who suffers beyond measure.

There is a problem here. Why did Job deserve such punishment? After all, there was precious little he could do. In fact, there was nothing he could do; we see that from Jethro.

Jethro ran away. Quite clearly, he realized there was no realistic possibility of opposing Pharaoh. It would have achieved nothing; it would have resulted in his death, without any benefit to the Jews. And yet, Job is punished for his silence, and endures terrible suffering. Why?

One answer is given by the famous 19th Century halachist, Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger, in his Aruch HaNer. It's an illuminating answer --- and a sobering one.

True, he says, Job could not have opposed pharaoh; couldn't have helped anyone with his opposition. Had he done so, he would have undoubtedly been killed.

But even so, he should not have kept quiet. There are some situations which are so morally repugnant, so unequivocally evil, that one has to speak out, even if the price is death.

The explanation of the Aruch HaNer is based on principles of morality. I heard another explanation, a profound explanation, From Rav Shmuelevitz, based on the psychology of human emotions.

"There are some things in life," said Rav Chaim, "which cause great pain. If you'll put your finger in a fire, what happens? It hurts. What do you do if it hurts? You cry out.

"There is no logic to it: there is no rhyme or reason. Your finger will not get better; the fire won't stop burning it. But it hurts. And if it hurts, you cry out. If you do not cry, it's a sign it really doesn't hurt that much."

Job kept silent. He didn't oppose, despite the moral repugnance of the decree. But more so: he did not cry out --- his "finger" did not hurt.

How was he punished? He suffered; he learned the meaning of pain; he learned how to cry out. His punishment was appropriate. It was a lesson in sensitivity.

ONE CANNOT acquiesce to a society that is unjust. One cannot remain silent when others are suffering. If one feels pain, it must be expressed, even if nothing is achieved by expressing it.

And if it isn't possible to express that pain, if one is living in a society which is beyond improvement, one must leave. That is the message of freedom our sages saw in the Pesach story. It's not sufficient for us just to gain physical freedom from oppression, if at the same time, other people are deprived of their freedom.

What does this mean for us in contemporary society? In the first-place, it means that we must not be insular, complacent, self-sufficient. We must be concerned with what is happening around us; we must be aware with what is happening around us.

Similarly, it means whatever community we happen to be living in anywhere in the world, we must speak up against the wrongs of our society, we must express our pain at the suffering in our society. There is still much to cry about, even in the "free" and "democratic" societies of 1998.

THERE IS NO SUCH thing, in human terms, as absolute freedom. This is true on the macrocosmic level.

There is no such thing, for example, as absolute military freedom; no one has yet developed the perfect weapons system. There is no such thing as absolute political freedom, as the Americans learned in Vietnam, and, more recently, the Russians in Afghanistan, etc. And there is no such thing as absolute economic freedom; every society is affected by economic trends elsewhere.

It's also true on a microcosmic level. We all live in society, and we have to relate to one another. The necessity to relate to one another imposes limits on one's freedoms.

I am not free to do exactly what I please, because my actions affect those around me. Only G-d is absolutely free, absolutely powerful, absolutely independent. But very often people forget this; very often we try to extend our own freedom, even at the cost of enslaving others, or limiting their freedoms.

BUT IT NEED NOT be necessarily so. Man is created in the image of G-d. What is an image? It is not the reality, not the substance. We are not, in fact, as free as G-d. But an image is a reflection, a representation, a faithful reproduction of the original.

In that sense --- and it is an awesome thought --- the fact that we are created in G-d's image means we can imitate His freedom. We can extend ourselves, transcend ourselves, push the limits even further. We can make conscious moral choices which enhance our real freedom.

In this respect, indeed, we do enjoy absolute freedom. As Maimonides puts it: "Every human being is given the ability to direct himself on a positive path, if he so wishes, and to be a righteous person; and if he chooses to direct himself on an evil path, and to be a wicked person, he is able to do so.

This is the meaning of the verse in the Torah: `Behold, man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil,' --- that is to say: `Behold, this species that is man is unique in the universe, and no other species is comparable to him in this respect --- namely, in his ability, of his own accord, through his own knowledge and thinking, to apprehend good and evil, and to do exactly as he pleases, without any restraint whatever preventing him from doing good or evil.'" (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah Laws of Repentance)

Hence, the well known saying of our rabbis: "There is nobody who is truly free but he who is involved in the Torah" --- because Torah teaches us what is good and what is evil, and how we should freely exercise our power of moral choice. It teaches us how to give freedom to others, rather than seek it for ourselves.

OVER THE YEARS, I have heard many stories about our great spiritual leaders and have been privileged to observe some of them up close. Invariably, one notices the same characteristics --- concern for other people, exquisite sensitivity towards the needs, the requirements, the feelings of others, an unusually developed sense of identification with the less fortunate.

These are rare and different qualities --- they are the mark of the truly great, the stamp of the truly free, of those who are in control of their every action.

Pesach -- known in rabbinic literature as z'man cheiruseinu -- "the time of our freedom," teaches us two great lessons of freedom. There is the lesson of the man I met in Haifa --- that G-d alone is all-powerful and free and can take us from slavery to freedom. And then there is the lesson of the suffering of Job --- that man cannot be silent when others are suffering.

Man can be free. He is created in the image of G-d. He has moral choice. He can stretch the parameters of his own limitations.

He can rise above himself and seek freedom for others. By doing so -- and only by doing so -- he can truly experience freedom. Then -- and only then -- will he know the answer to the question: "What is freedom?"

New JWR contributor, Rabbi Berel Berkovits, is the Registar of the London Beth Din.


© 1998, Rabbi Berel Berkovits