November 20, 2018

Thoughts on freedom

Freedom is one of those easy words that can put the mind to sleep. I mean, who doesn’t love freedom? Especially when you compare it to its polar opposite, physical slavery, what’s not to love?

This juxtaposition of opposites is most obvious at Passover, when we celebrate the extraordinary journey of our ancestors from slavery to freedom. The climax to the story is so epic, so intoxicating, it easily can make us forget that it is really a beginning, not an end; that after the redemption come the questions.

Because if any idea could use some questioning, it is freedom.

We’re not used to questioning freedom precisely because it feels so climactic — like the exclamation point to a civilized life. Indeed, if you’re languishing in jail in one those countries that oppresses gays, women and dissidents, freedom surely is the exclamation point you crave.

But most of us don’t live under such oppression. Here in America, if I write a column that offends our leaders, no one will jail me. If my synagogue wants to celebrate a new Torah scroll on a public sidewalk, our society allows it.

So, what is there to talk about? Why can’t we just use the Passover holiday to appreciate the incredible freedom we have and express our gratitude?

Because our tradition, especially at Passover, compels us to question, to go deeper. In fact, questioning is a way of expressing our gratitude for no longer being physically enslaved. We are free to consider the ways freedom itself can fail us. Like so many beautiful things, freedom can seduce us into gluttony, into overdosing on a good thing.

If I use my freedom to wallow in self-pity, or say hurtful things, or engage in soul-sapping pursuits, am I really free?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in “The Insecurity of Freedom,” touches on this dark side: “The danger begins when freedom is thought to consist of the fact that ‘I can act as I desire.’ This definition not only overlooks the compulsions which often lie behind our desires; it reveals the tragic truth that freedom may develop within itself the seed of its own destruction.”

Unbridled and misdirected freedom, in other words, can lead us right back to slavery. We all learn soon enough that inside the freedom to pursue happiness lurks the freedom to be miserable.

Even when we’re happy, what does freedom really mean? If I’m forced to miss the premiere of a great movie because my daughter needs to go to Office Depot, how free am I? But if it gives me great pleasure to fulfill my duty as a parent, is that sacrifice a supreme expression of my freedom?

It’s not the first time you hear that true freedom comes with responsibility. But responsibility for what? In our era of tikkun olam, there’s a tendency to look only at the macro dimension of freedom, not the personal, intimate one. Because we are personally free, we like to talk about liberating others and repairing the world.

But repairing the world does not preclude repairing ourselves. If anything, the latter is a prerequisite to the former. It is by repairing ourselves that we can best repair the world.

If I use my freedom to wallow in self-pity, or say hurtful things, or engage in soul-sapping pursuits, am I really free?

Yes, it’s easier to worry about how freedom can bring joy and liberation to others than to worry about how freedom can corrode our souls. It’s easier to worry about “the world we live in” than about how staring at our smartphones during family dinners can sap our humanity.

It’s when we use our freedom to service only our desires that we allow it to enslave us in our appetites.

Passover gives us a chance to confront the hidden slaveries of everyday life. We get to go deep, probe what it really means to be free and see the pain that is smuggled by liberation.

Because there is pain. Any harm we inflict on others or on ourselves, any emptiness we feel inside, is connected to how we use our freedom.

When our ancestors were paralyzed by physical enslavement, they didn’t have the luxury to consider the finer points of freedom. We do. We are blessed to be living at a time when we can engage in more sophisticated pursuits, such as the act of refining our characters.

The refined character understands that freedom is just an instrument. It’s a brush that can paint a masterpiece or an ugly blob, a pen that can write words of enlightenment or words that poison, a sharp knife that can create exquisite meals or pierce human flesh.

Passover reminds us to live free, go deep and, above all, choose wisely.

Chag sameach.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at