Sermon for Pesach Morning – on Jewish Freedom
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 20 April 2019
“I am here fighting for freedom”. So said a protester outside parliament on 29 March, bemoaning that the UK had not left the EU.
“This paper will continue to fight for freedom” – a newspaper, of a sort, the next day.
“We must have the courage if necessary to reclaim our freedom first and talk afterwards.” This one was a former cabinet minister, on the same theme.
I could go on.
In the last few weeks and months there has been much talk of this sort, from those who have claimed the language of freedom as their own.
So, I thought, this morning, as we celebrate liberation from Egypt, we might take a few minutes to explore together the Jewish idea of freedom and to see how, whether, it relates.
We begin with vocabulary.
There are 2 biblical words that have the sense of liberty of freedom. The first is chofesh – you find it in a text from Exodus that deals with the release of a Hebrew slave: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years – u’va’sh’vi’it yetzei l’chofshi chinam – in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.”
It’s the same word used by Naftali Herz Imber in the Hatikvah. “Liyot am chofshi be’artzenu” – to be a free people in our land.
The other, from Leviticus 25 – the laws of the Jubilee year – is d’ror, meaning release, liberty: “U’kratem dror ba’aretz l’chol yoshveihah – You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.”
Yet given the choice of these biblical words, when the rabbis chose to speak of liberty at this time of year, for the freedom of Pesach they chose neither. For their commemoration of the Exodus, they chose a word not known until rabbinic times. Thus, as we read this morning in Kedushat HaYom – that part of the Amidah in which we declare the holiness of the day – this is “chag ha-matzot ha-zeh, z’man cheruteinu”. They chose the word cherut.
To understand this, we need to think about the different connotations of these different freedom words. The types of freedom that they represent.
We begin with chofesh – the freedom of a Hebrew slave. At first glance it is the obvious word to use. We, too, were released from slavery. So why not zman chofsheinu? The rabbis, it’s quite clear, were very nervous about this type of freedom. They saw the freedom of chofesh as being a very narrow kind of, unbound freedom. Some commentators related it to the Hebrew root chet peh tzadee – meaning to want, to desire. Chofesh as the freedom of desire fulfilment. A seductive but ultimately unnourishing freedom.
To the rabbis this freedom had a very negative connotation. Psalm 88 states: “I am a helpless man – ba-metim chofshi – among the dead who are free”. The freedom of chofshi is a freedom from the realities of human obligation, one that is – to all intents and purposes, a spiritual death – it’s often translated ‘abandoned’. On this verse, the Talmud asks, “How are the dead free? Keivan she-meit adam, naasah chofshi min ha-mitzvot – when someone dies, they become free from the mitzvot”.
In a breathtaking piece of translation, the 19th Century Ukrainian philologist Yitchak Baer Levinsohn relates chet peh shin to the root chet vet shin – relating the chofshi of the dead to chavush – being imprisoned. To be free, in this sense, is to be sealed away from others, outside of human contact. For with human contact comes a limitation on our freedom, comes obligation to others whether we wish it or not.
Dror carries similarly challenging connotations.
The release of the jubilee is a very specific moment and itself a very specific obligation. What would it mean for us to be released from our responsibilities?
Jeremiah uses the metaphor of liberation and turns it on its head: “Because you did not proclaim release to one another,” he states, “God will say: hin’ni koreh lachem dror – I proclaim your release – release to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine.”
The freedom from obligation that comes with freedom from human responsibility comes at a price – the vulnerability of being alone and uncared for, of not having others to fight for you.
So what of cherut? What kind of freedom did the rabbis privilege? What is the freedom of which we spoke last night when we thanked God for taking us “mei’avdut l’cherut – from slavery to freedom?” What is the freedom of a ben-chorin, a free person?
The root chet vav reish is one of those odd ones that we can’t really explain. It’s not clear how it came to be a word for freedom in the first centuries CE. [It may be related to the chorin of later books of the bibles – they were groups of nobles; or possibly to a word for white – the palace of Ahasuerus is decorated, among other things with chur – white hangings.] There is an Arabic equivalent, through which it also entered Swahili, meaning that cherut is etymologically linked to uhuru – the name of African Socialist movements in the 1960s. It also means that when we spoke of being ben chorin, we linked ourselves to a key character in the original series of Star Trek.
Which is very pleasing. But doesn’t help to explain the rabbinic choice of that word for freedom.
For that we might look at one of its earliest uses – in Pirkei Avot. A text in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi states: “The tablets were the work of God and the writing was the writing of God charut al haluchot – engraved on the tablets. Al tikra charut – do not read charut- engraved, but ‘cherut’ – freedom; she-ein l’cha ben chorin eliah mi she-oseik b’talmud torah – for you do not find a free person except for one who is engaged in the study of Torah.”
This is a very different kind of freedom. One which is about existing within a framework, freedom through obligation and connection. This freedom also has a solidity to it – not the flightiness of choice, but the permanence of engravedness, of commitment.
Important – for me – is what it does not say. It does not say that you only find a free person who does all of the mitzvot – this is not the freedom of obedience. Rather, this is the freedom of engagement, of struggle. It is neither the freedom of existing only for fulfilment of one’s own desires, nor the captivity of lack of choice – it is about the liberty of engagement.
We find this sense elsewhere in our Pesach texts too. In Ha lacham anya – “This is the bread of affliction” we anticipate being b’nei chorin – free people. We do so as we invite those who are hungry to come and eat, echoing the example of Rav Huna who would do so at every meal. This is the freedom of responsibility to those who need. And we add an invitation to those who are in need come and share the Pesach sacrifice – harking back to the fact that in temple times the Pesach was eaten by collections of people together, not merely by individuals or families. This is the freedom of mutual responsibility. Chavurot – the groups that would sacrifice and eat together were real, binding, commitments – the commitment to work together in the common good.
Jewish freedom, then, is not freedom to go and do your own thing, away from your obligations to others – this is, we might say, the freedom of the imprisoned, the freedom of the dead. Instead, it is the freedom of connectedness, of obligation, of struggle and service. As God said through Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh – Let My people go that they may serve Me.
Of course, that freedom comes at a cost. It might feel hard to us. We might, like the Israelites in the wilderness, hark back to a different time when our obligations were fewer. There is an extraordinary midrash which takes the moaning of the Israelites for a time when they had better food, to be moaning for a time when they were without obligation. According to Sifrei B’midbar, when they state “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the word free refers to freedom from of mitzvot. Better to be physically enslaved than committed, than to have responsibilities. Jewish freedom – and the bonds it brings – can be hard.
But it is also the source of greatest potential. As the American writer David Brooks put it in an essay last week, 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. By planting themselves in one neighbourhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.”
It is not freedom from bonds of obligation and relationship that our tradition celebrates, nor asks us to fight for.
“We must have the courage if necessary to reclaim our freedom?”
It is the freedom of commitment, of connection, of fulfilling our responsibilities, of struggle from within – it is that freedom that as Jews we must have the courage to embrace.