Freedom Without Limits?

April 5, 2011

5 min read


“Let my people go” is only half the story.

I hate it when people try to put words into my mouth.

That's exactly what happened when I was invited, in the role of rabbinic expert, to address a class of public high school seniors on "The Most Important Message of the Jewish Holiday of Passover."

Before I could say anything, the person in charge carried on effusively, telling the students how she was certain I would explain that Jews celebrate Passover as the biblical festival which glorifies freedom as the greatest of all human rights. It is this concept, she enthusiastically went on, that guides us today as we live in a country that permits no limitations on our personal freedoms. We are free to do as we please, she suggested – all thanks to a Jewish holiday.

Then she finally introduced me and gave me the opportunity to disabuse her and the audience of an all too common misconception.

Of course, on one level, Passover deals with freedom. It is a holiday that commemorates the end of Jewish slavery and suffering. It reminds us from year-to-year that God hears the cries of the downtrodden, sensitive to the pain of the abused who seek relief from their cruel masters. Human beings are meant to be free from oppression by the wicked, from mistreatment by the callous, from subjugation by the stronger.

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and that kind of restriction is something the Almighty cannot countenance. "Let my people go," were the words God put into the mouth of Moses as the first part of his plea for liberty for the children of Israel. But there was more to that petition which we conveniently forget. And it is the last part of the biblical call for justice that forces us to rethink the parameters of freedom and the way in which our contemporary society has distorted its message.

Free Country

It sounds great, at first blush, to say that everyone should be free to do whatever they like. The first time our children give voice to obscenities or speak to us disrespectfully with the argument that "it's a free country," we begin to recognize that freedom without limits is anarchy, and freedom without conscience is cruelty.

Free speech is curtailed when it presents a clear and present danger.

Societies quickly learn that no one can be totally free at the expense of other people's rights. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right of American democracy. Nonetheless the Supreme Court has ruled that a few other public interests – national security, justice or personal safety – override freedom of speech. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, speaking for the unanimous Supreme Court, stated, "The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."

The notion that “it's a free country” is what caused a Rutgers University freshman to kill himself after two classmates used a hidden dorm room camera to splash his sex life across the Internet.

Tyler Clementi, a renowned high school violinist, left his wallet on the George Washington Bridge before plunging to his death in the Hudson River after a Twitter post revealed sensitive details about his private life.

“It's a free country,” so Megan Taylor Meier, an American teenager from Missouri, committed suicide by hanging three weeks before her 14th birthday; she was distraught after the e-mails she was receiving from a boy turned from love to hate. In fact they were a fraudulent prank orchestrated by a neighbor, the mother of one Megan's friends with whom she had had a falling out.

The Law of Sinai

Freedoms misused may have tragic consequences. That is why Passover, known as the festival of freedom, is actually only half a holiday. From the very moment we celebrate liberation we count the days to the holiday of Shavuot, when the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah. The two festivals are inextricably linked. The first speaks of freedom from; the second freedom to. We were freed from physical servitude in order to voluntarily place ourselves under the restrictions of moral rectitude.

Freedom without any restraints may very well be just as destructive as slavery. "No one can ever tell me what to do" – an idea not limited by ethical constraints – is potentially just as much a threat to the social order as slave masters.

Freedom without restraints may be as destructive as slavery.

The Midrash has a fascinating commentary on the location of the first meeting between God and Moses. It was at the burning bush that Moses was delegated to deliver the Jews from the slavery of Egypt. The bush in Hebrew was called sneh. That, say the commentators, is why that very spot would eventually be called Sinai. The place where the mission began defined its purpose. The goal was not simply to get the Jews out of Egypt, but rather to bring them to the mountain where they would receive the law. Freedom without law is inconceivable.

That is why Moses subsequently told Pharaoh not only to "let my people go," but added the all-important phrase "so that they may serve Me." This is the freedom of Passover, wedded to the moral covenant of the Torah.

From a Jewish perspective, to speak only of the ideal of freedom – while ignoring its necessary partner of responsibility – is to pervert its true meaning.

This is what Abraham Lincoln understood so well in his famous words, "Freedom is not the right to do what we want, but what we ought."

And this is the real message of Passover: God granted us the gift of physical freedom, so that we might become truly free to be guided by our spiritual selves.

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