As we enter “the time of our freedom,” we are called on to think a bit about this idea. When we think of freedom, we usually start with thinking of liberty – freedom from government interference in our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We think of freedom from unreasonable coercion and restrictions. We think of being a free people, free to vote for or against our present government so that we can bring on a new government. We think of our rights – being free to express ourselves, gather in public, practice our religion (or not to).
To understand the biblical idea of freedom, we would have to imagine the time before the American Revolution – described in the longer part of the Declaration of Independence. The colonists not only wanted the freedom to govern themselves, but the freedom to set up, as much as possible, an ideal form of government. Their theories of setting up the ideal state came from various sources – the natural law/natural rights tradition and the idea of the separation of powers, for example. The idea of de-centralized state versus strong central government was fiercely debated. What fueled all the debates was the idea that a free people had an obligation to set up an ideal and just state, and while not perfect, would aim toward perfection. Those who lived in colonial America had to be free first. It took a hundred years after the ratification of Constitution in 1789 to apply those rights legally to all males, and another nearly half a century to apply them to women. Those legal steps were just a start. What exactly our rights are and how to best protect them is still being worked out, but the work is being done.
The biblical idea of freedom is similar to the original problem that the American colonists faced. Our freedom from Egypt was not so much about individual liberty as it was about Israelites being able to set up an ideal state, so fair and just that the nations roundabout would marvel in admiration. I think scholars agree: When ancient Israelite laws are compared to legal systems roundabout, we see a stunning advance in what we would call today “human rights.”Second, political philosophers see the modern liberal state, founded on rights, justice and fairness as being rooted in ancient biblical religion. We should discuss this at our Passover gatherings and know that we are morally obligated to work for political freedom, in other words, to “establish justice throughout the land,” as much we can, at home and abroad.
The inner life tradition would have us add a focus on our own behaviors, not just the oppressive behavior of others. From an inner life perspective, we are called on to be virtuous and to be persons of good character – not to cause harm and misery to others, especially through our words. People sometimes say, “I cannot help myself,” or “No one can be that perfect!”Our tradition sets a higher bar and permits fewer excuses than people give themselves.
Inner freedom also means struggling against the misery we cause ourselves. As I have taught in my Wisdom and Virtue classes this past year, anger at the self comes up continuously. People are afflicted by negative inner speech, addictions, depression, despair, meaninglessness, emptiness, isolation and ennui. We are politically free to do what we want, but nothing seems to help, until we search and search hard.
There is a path to inner freedom, freedom from inner misery. It is a hard, detailed and obscure path. The path to inner freedom is somewhat different for each person. After political freedom, freedom from patterns that cause misery in others and misery in ourselves is the most important use of our energy and time.
My prayer for us all is that we use this festival of freedom ahead of us to contemplate and act on the value of freedom in all of its splendor.