D’var Torah: Freedom and Responsibility

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 7 January 2022

We come, in our annual cycle of Torah readings, to the three weeks in our narrative which are perhaps the most important in the self-understanding of our people – our sense of who we are and what is expected of us.

In tomorrow’s parashah, the Israelites leave Egypt – the moment of the Exodus – released from the restrictions of slavery. Next week, we will read their crossing of the sea, finally free from the threat of Egyptian oppression.
And then, just a week later, in parashat Yitro, we arrive at the accepting of Torah. Free from slavery, free from fear, almost immediately their freedom is constrained – with the taking on of obligation, of commandment.

To be Jewish is to hold two key ideas in our sense of self:
The first is Redemption – being free – once we were slaves, now we are free, we matter enough that we were worthy of being rescued.
The second is Revelation – obligation – to be Jewishly free is to be in covenantal relationship with God, and with each other. Our freedom is limited, because we have responsibilities that we carry with us. We matter not as a matter simply of entitlement but because of our impact on the world around us, what we do.
As God said through Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh, as Noah will read tomorrow morning, ‘Let My people go that they may serve Me’.

There is a great deal of talk of freedom at the moment – The freedom to be or not be vaccinated, and whether this decision should have consequences; freedom to wear or not wear a mask
Some of the loudest voices decry any such measure as an infringement of their liberty, viewing all obligation as a form of tyranny.

But of all our narrative’s key ideas, this perhaps, is the most important – this Jewish understanding of freedom. That to be free means to have responsibility. Jewish freedom is not the freedom to go and do one’s own thing, away from our obligations to others, it is the freedom of connectedness, of obligation, of struggle and service.

This idea was beautifully expressed by the psychotherapist and shoah survivor Victor Frankl in his ‘man’s search for meaning’, where he suggested that the Statue of Liberty on the east coast of America should be supplemented with a Statue of Responsibility on the west.
“Freedom,” he argued, “Is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of… responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”

Or, as the American writer David Brooks put it, critiquing the messages we teach our children in the modern world:
“The people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love. They earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.”

As we read, over the next three weeks, these foundational stories in our Jewish lives – and as we live with what we hope is the tail end of this pandemic and its challenges – let us remember that ours is not ‘freedom from’, but ‘freedom to’ – recommiting ourselves to the responsibleness of which Frankl wrote, to the connections and chains that bind us.
May we remember that Jewish freedom is not the freedom of libertarianism, but the freedom to protect and care for one another.