Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
(“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, mounted on the Statue of Liberty).
We all yearn to breathe free, to be free. But do we really know what freedom means?
Ask somebody the meaning of freedom and you will usually get an answer to the effect of “the ability, or the right, to do what one pleases.” However, upon reflection, almost anyone (except maybe teenagers) would have to admit that this couldn’t be the true definition. After all, there is no area of human existence that does not have a defined code of conduct, whether mandated by social norm or governmental regulation.
And that is the way it should be. I once was driving with my family during a massive thunderstorm, when all the traffic lights in the neighborhood went out. One of my children exclaimed, “Cool, we don’t have to stop for any lights!” Cool, indeed! We got through two intersections before we were caught in a nightmarishly dangerous web of traffic, causing a ten-minute drive to become an hour-long, harrowing experience.
Of course, having too much regulation is stifling as well. But having no regulation leads to anarchy, not freedom.
So what is the true definition of freedom?
I’m sure many reasonable people would differ on a precise definition, but I like to think of freedom as “the right and the ability to pursue a life of meaning and personal accomplishment.” This is in direct contrast to the degradation of slavery, where one is property of the master, doing work at his whim, with no possible sense of meaning or accomplishment.
Hard work towards a goal is immensely satisfying. The same work without a goal is slavery.
It seems to me that this is an important lesson of Passover, the Festival of Freedom, which we begin celebrating this week. G-d took the Jews out of slavery and brought them to Mount Sinai . . . where He promptly told them they could never have a good cheeseburger and would have to refrain from pizza and Oreo cookies every spring for eight days. This is freedom?!?
Yes indeed, this IS freedom. Aside from the degrading physical slavery in Egypt, tradition teaches that the Jews were freed from the decadent culture of Egypt, where they were dangerously close to becoming completely assimilated. G-d, who created all of humanity and infused into us a divine soul, freed the Jews from bondage to give them guidance on how to live a life where the spirit can never be enslaved. G-d taught the Jewish People how living a disciplined Torah life enhances freedom and pleasure, enables meaningful accomplishment, and liberates us from the destructive tyranny of jealousy, lust, and ego.
True freedom is represented by the foods we eat, as well as those we refrain from eating, on Passover. The simple matzah represents not only physical freedom from slavery, but faith, simplicity, and humility, while the bloated nature of chametz (leavened bread) represents ego and desire.
Today we have more freedom than ever before, including more freedom for women and oppressed minorities. But despite the truly impressive accomplishments of having an African- American President and a female Secretary of State, when Vice President Biden speaks, as he recently did, of one in five women being assaulted on college campuses, we know we are still far from the true freedom of sprit that Passover represents.
So this year at the Passover Seder, as you recount the tale of the Exodus, encourage your family and friends to discuss their thoughts on the true meaning of freedom. And as you are crunching on the matzah, pause to consider how a genuine connection to Jewish tradition can help us feel truly free.
Do so, and one day you may be able to proclaim the moving words made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Free at last! Free at last! Thank G-d Almighty, we are free at last!’
Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz is the Rabbi and Director of the Monmouth Torah Links community. Shortly after receiving his semicha (rabbinic ordination) from Bais Medrash Govoha, the famed Lakewood Yeshiva, Rabbi Oratz, along with his wife Toby and family, moved to Marlboro, NJ where they co-founded the MTL community in 2001. Aside for his “Devar on the Par” that he writes for MTL, his writings have also been published on Aish, Times of Israel, Seforim Blog, Hakira, and in various Rabbinic journals. Rabbi Oratz looks forward to continuing teaching Torah in a way that is timely and timeless, and sharing meaningful Jewish experiences with the amazing MTL community.