It’s worth remembering that not so long ago, freedom was a concept that meant little to most people throughout the world.
Ask a feudal serf if he dreams of freedom and he’ll look at you as if you’re crazy. He’s too busy worrying about harvesting a large enough crop to pay taxes to his lord, about too much rain and too much drought, about marauders stealing his produce, burning down his house, or raping his daughter. Freedom? Who has time for such fantasies?
Even today, consider the burgeoning middle class in China today. How many millions have been pacified with capitalist prosperity, happily paying the price of submission to an authoritarian government?
Closer to home, calls for defunding police departments are now being reconsidered after the inevitable surge in crime. Seriously, do we really want to live in a society with no rules at all? Don’t we cherish the right to protection and privacy? Aren’t we better off when everyone is required to drive on the same side of the road?
Absolute freedom sounds wonderful until you remember that there is a name for a society without rules: Anarchy.
TOO MUCH FREEDOM?
Still, the debate continues. In today’s binary-minded society, nuance and balance are hard to sell. That’s what Fox News host Arthel Neville discovered when she critiqued the libertine behavior of college students on spring break that has received so much media attention. Observing the total disinterest in wearing masks or social distancing to protect against the spread of COVID, Ms. Neville remarked:
Because it’s not required. That’s the point… You know, people don’t follow the rules if they’re given too many freedoms.
Predictably, Fox nation responded by going ballistic, with correspondents branding the news host an ignorant hack, comparing her to Chinese dictator Xi Jinping, and screaming, “So you want to LIMIT OUR FREEDOMS?????”
Of course, that’s not what Arthel Neville likely meant at all, even if she did phrase her comment somewhat clumsily. It’s doubtful that she was advocating a police state or martial law. Rather, she was reflecting that freedom only works when it rests on a foundation of responsibility.
FREEDOM IS THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE
Indeed, real freedom is all about personal responsibility. It’s about being accountable for our own actions and decisions. It’s about moral discipline and ethical awareness. It’s about securing the rights of others so that others will respect and defend our rights as well.
Ultimately, freedom is the right to choose our own master rather than having a master imposed upon us. Submission to authority, when that authority is guided by absolute principles of compassion and justice, enables a society to strike the perfect balance between individual autonomy and communal harmony, between privilege and duty.
THOSE LEFT BEHIND
According to rabbinic tradition, only 20 percent of the Jewish people actually left Egypt in the great exodus. If so, what happened to the rest?
We know that it was the final plague upon the firstborn that finally convinced Pharaoh to let the people go. However, the sages teach that he did try to appease G-d by releasing the Jews from the burden of hard labor. And so, as each of the ten plagues plunged Egyptian society deeper into chaos and anguish, the Jews looked on from their place of newly-won comfort and grew dangerously content.
In only a few short months, the suffering of generations was forgotten and the prospect of embarking into the forbidding desert became unthinkable. Four-fifths of the Jewish population made up their minds not to go out when the opportunity arrived, provoking the Almighty to decree that they should die during the plague of darkness.
ALL OR NOTHING?
But why this draconian response? Why not simply allow the complacent to stay behind and forfeit the privilege of becoming part of a great nation?
Because freedom is a responsibility, not a right. If we believe that we can enjoy the fruits of freedom without shouldering its obligations, it is only a matter of time before someone stronger takes our freedom away, or before we discard freedom because we no longer value it.
Unless the Jewish people had that lesson implanted into their collective past, it was certain that they would not survive long into the future. This is the same lesson Thomas Jefferson would articulate 3000 years later when he observed that, from time to time, the tree of liberty must be replenished with the blood of patriots and tyrants. Anything worth fighting for must be fought for over and over again.
Freedom is challenging, complicated, and demanding. But the rewards of freedom are greater prosperity, greater security, greater commitment to a purpose greater than anything any one of us can achieve alone.
That is what we celebrate on the holiday of Passover. What will you do to celebrate your freedom?