Trying to Be Free – Thought for Passover 2023

Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.
April 5, 2023
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Thoughts on the Shabbat of Passover, 2023 (adapted from previous versions)

“Trying to be free from what?” I ask myself, in my yearly meditation on freedom. 

Like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

These obscurely luminous words by Leonard Cohen express some deep, beloved and tortuous mystery – the mythical allure of drunkenness as a path to freedom. Being drunk to forget, to become numb, to find hilarity. I read somewhere that it takes at least four cups of wine to get started.

I love Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn movies, such as George Cukor’s 1938 gem “Holiday.”  Johnny (Cary Grant) and Julia (Doris Nolan) fall in love and want to get married. Johnny has worked enough for a while and plans a long holiday to find the meaning of life. Julia, who seeks a proper husband who will work in her father’s bank, is seeking stability. In the process of meeting Julia’s family (a family impoverished in spirit in direct proportion to its material plenty) Johnny meets Julia’s vivacious sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn).

The condition laid down for Johnny to marry Julia is that he forget about the holiday. He must work in Julia’s father’s bank. Trade freedom for money. Buy his way into slavery. Linda is praying that Johnny does not succumb, that for once someone will not fall for the allure of lucre.

Julia implores Johnny for forget about freedom. It seems that Johnny will cave in to Julia’s suasions. Linda is disconsolate and considers getting drunk. She turns to her drunken brother, Ned (Lew Ayres) to find out what it is like. He tells her (this is my paraphrasing from the dialogue):

It’s grand to get good and drunk. It brings you to life. You begin to know all about it. You feel important. And then the game starts, a swell, exciting game. You think as clear as crystal, but every move, every sentence is a problem. That gets interesting. You get beat at the game, but that’s good. You don’t mind. You don’t mind anything. You sleep. In the end, you die.

(Screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchanan, from the play by Philip Barry).

Linda and her brother Ned yearn to be free. Johnny, in his yearning to be free, finally decides not to walk into the spiritual prison that marriage to Julia would be. He gives it one last chance: he begs Julia to join him on his holiday to Europe. Julia turns him down. Linda finds out that Johnny is setting sail and instead of getting drunk,  she plans to rush down to the docks and join Johnny. As she leaves the house, she begs Ned to join her. Ned tragically can’t do it.

Ned’s path to freedom is blocked by the drunken stupor, in which he feels free enough. Linda makes a break for it, and in the most touching moment of the movie, Linda says, “I’ll be back for you, Ned.”

Is that what the drunk in the midnight choir is bellowing about? He does not have the words to express the misery of ephemeral freedom through booze.  As Ned says, “Every move, every sentence is a problem.” In Leonard’s song, the drunk needs the hymnal, he needs the church, he needs the choir to sing a song of redemption.

I think there is a rip in the fabric of the heart of every conscious person. The heart is ripped open by a hymn trying to escape from a dark chamber of forgotten prayers. We don’t know the words, we don’t know the music and we don’t know how to sing. But we know there is a song written about us and for us, we who imagine the drunk in the midnight choir, trying in our own way to be free.

In our midnight choir, we don’t only drink to remember freedom, we drink to loosen the chains that stop us from entering the chamber of forgotten prayers.

The freedom of the drunk is a metaphor for those trying to escape the torment of being trapped in the pain of existence. Even as the drunk drinks to numb the pain, he knows enough to stumble to the midnight choir. This drunk might never go to church in a sober state – too cynical, too shutdown. Julia, in the movie, is the sober cynic. Ned, we hope, will find his way to a midnight choir, as his first step to liberation.  First, liberation from numbing the pain through substance or emotional addictions. Then, learn how to pick locks on shackles.

Johnny and Linda break the chains and head for the holiday, looking for a way to be free. I hope they find the meaning they are seeking. It won’t be as easy as getting on a boat.

We love this song about the midnight choir because we are each trying to sing a song that will open up our own way to be free.

I hope you find a song to sing this year, a new one, or an old one, or a forgotten one. I hope your Passover seders are fun and interesting, but no Passover seder that I know of is going to give you that song. It will only give you a cue to find the song. You’ll have to search for the song. Maybe the song is under the Afikoman.

There is a magic moment. You’ve earned the meal through some diligent – traditional or not – telling of the story. Then we have all the Passover songs. Then the song inside the song. We create our own midnight choir.

Who knows one? Who knows one song, one poem that will let the hymn out from the rip in the heart?

Who knows two? Who knows two lines, one couplet of one hymn that will break a lock like ringing a bell?

I know two lines that Bob Dylan wrote:

I see my light come shining, from the west unto the east

Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.

Who knows one? I don’t yet know one. So I join the midnight choir. Perhaps someone will teach me a song.

May your Passover be joyous and filled with song!

Chag Same’ach!

Rabbi Mordecai Finley


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