The good and holy freedom

By Rabbi Shmuel Klatzkin, Chabad of Greater Dayton

Rabbi Shmuel Klatzkin

Millennia ago, the Sages gave Passover the name of Zeman Cheiruteinu, The Time of Our Freedom. The name is apt; we are celebrating our redemption from Egyptian servitude and our launching off into the wilderness, beyond the sway of any constraining human power.

Freedom is something we cherish greatly. The American revolution was cast as a struggle to cast off tyranny, and the Bill of Rights, which won ratification of the Constitution, established fundamental freedoms that to this day are definitive of what all societies should guarantee: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, and more.

Though we use the word often and esteem it greatly, do we agree on what freedom means? For instance, most of us would probably agree that the freedom to worship without governmental restraint is a very fine thing, but that the freedom of a dangerous rapist who escaped from prison is not so very good.

There are subtler distinctions, though, that we may profit from considering. Think for a moment of the task of raking leaves. Anyone who has raked leaves often will not think too hard or too often about the process. One sees the leaves scattered across the lawn and one rakes them up and bags them until the lawn looks sufficiently neat again.

But there are more possibilities for choice than just that. If we care to, we may ask some more questions and exercise further choice.

How many leaves can be left on a lawn and it still can be considered neat? How much is this a consideration of the size of the lawn as compared to the number of leaves, a question of leaf density? How does one know when to stop raking one particular swath of lawn when the work is still in progress, since one cannot yet see the total effect?

And in the raking process itself, how many times ought one to rake before stopping to bag? How full should one make each bag? Where exactly should each bag be placed upon filling? With a little effort, one could multiply questions such as these almost endlessly. And each question uncovers a freedom, for it frames a choice we could make.

Our question is: do such freedoms enrich our lives? Are they desirable? The practical answer most people of my acquaintance make is: no.

Such freedoms introduce unnecessary complications which detract from the freedom we truly esteem and desire. Rather than becoming a philosopher of leaves, most of us would rather do the task well confined by rote. We see that as a streamlining of our lives rather than a confinement.

Let us take this insight into freedom into the realm of our tradition. In what is known as the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: “No one is free except for the one who occupies himself in the study of Torah.”

What could that possibly mean? Aside from the fact that study itself restricts a person considerably (think of all the things we suddenly realize ought to be done right now whenever we sit down to study), Torah study itself teaches us that we should consider many things off limits and many other things imperative, regardless of what our own inclinations might be.

Isn’t that the opposite of freedom? Isn’t that an assault on autonomy, on fundamental freedom and dignity? Shouldn’t such a diminution of freedom make for a less moral person?

Let us consider a stark example. In the 1920s, the United States was transfixed by a lurid murder trial, the Loeb-Leopold case. Two highly intelligent college students embarked on a wave of crimes of ever-increasing gravity, until they eventually plotted and carried out what they thought the perfect crime, the murder of a 14-year-old boy.

What motivated them? In a letter to Loeb just before the murder, Leopold wrote: “A superman…is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do.”

Compare this to the Talmud’s statement: “A human being is always liable for damages he may cause.”

Is freedom from moral restraint a desirable freedom? Does it impinge on our life? Leopold certainly thought so. The truly free person, the superman of Nietzsche, who brooked no restrictions on his range of choices, will reject all confinement.

Perhaps this is an unfair example. These were just two weird boys; all right-thinking people reject such thinking out of hand. But then one must explain where all those right-thinking people were when, less than a decade later, that same line of thinking was accepted by a mighty nation that excelled in art, science and technology. Hermann Rauschning quotes Hitler as having declared: “Man is becoming God — that is the simple fact. Man is God in the making.”

Jewish thought tells us that we must think deeply about the nature of the freedom we embrace. Think, for example, of the freedom in the movement of a gold-medal ice skater, seemingly free even from the constraints of gravity. Think of the freedom of a violin virtuoso launching into a brilliant cadenza, or of a Charlie Parker at the height of his powers. The incredible beauty and freedom these people bring is the result of thousands of hours of devotion and discipline. Their drive for excellence compelled them to focus, to rule out many choices in pursuit of their goal.

Our Torah directs us toward a life-giving excellence. We become artists of our own lives, and we achieve excellence through a devotion that includes the acceptance of numerous restraints. The result is not a cancerous breakdown of the structures that allow life, but the enhancement of all that gives life meaning and enables us to celebrate it.

Jewish mystics tell us that God withheld His greatest light from this world, in order to allow us a space in which to grow, not to be overwhelmed. When we respond to God by learning to withhold ourselves, we enable that great withheld light to at last come in.

This is the freedom we all know and admire, the freedom to devote ourselves to all that is good and holy, that can transform the world and bring it at last to peace. This is the freedom we will celebrate on Pesach, the Time of Our Liberation.

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