What is Freedom?

This evening we usher in the final day (or two days, in the diaspora) of Pesach. The last day of the holiday commemorates the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea, the point at which they were finally free of Egypt. Pharaoh’s armies were annihilated, and he abandoned his pursuit of his former slaves for good. The Israelites were now completely free.

Or were they?

The message that God instructed Moses to carry to Pharaoh was: “Let my people go so that they may serve me” (Exodus 7:16). The verb that is used is identical to that describing our service to Pharaoh; we were avadim l’Pharaoh and became avadim l’Hashem. Were we really freed from slavery, or did our slavery simply transfer from one master to another Master?

Defining Freedom

There are many ways to define ‘freedom’. The term might mean different things to different people at different times. A Talmudic definition of freedom is the ability to control one’s own time. A slave is told what to do and when to do it (for this reason, Jewish servants were exempt from time-bound mitzvot). A more modern definition of freedom – particularly in our capitalistic world – might be tied to amassing a vast fortune. There is a great deal of truth in this, as the Talmud (Nedarim 38a) tells us that all of our forefathers and prophets were exceedingly wealthy. For a child, freedom might mean staying up past their bedtime, or eating as many sweets as they wanted. For an adult, freedom might be a week off work or spending quality time with family.

To find a singular, all-encompassing definition of freedom, one has to zoom out and find a common denominator. The simplest (and most common) would be to say that freedom is the ability to do whatever a person wishes to do. Indeed, Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of freedom is “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action”. In other words, one is free to act as they wish.

The problem with this definition is that it is difficult to separate from simple instinct. For example, if one suddenly has a desire to consume a large piece of cheesecake, and does so, is this really freedom, or just a submission to their inner compulsion? What if this person is lactose-intolerant and grossly overweight – would eating that cheesecake be an act of freedom, or an act of slavery to their body’s desires?

It appears that we need to refine the above definition of freedom. Instead of phrasing it in the positive – the ability to do whatever one wishes – a better way to look at it might be in the negative: the ability to restrain one’s self from doing whatever they wish, even though they are completely free to do so.

The wise sage Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is the great person? The one who can overcome his inclinations.” (Avot 4:1) Ben Zoma bases this teaching on the words of King Solomon in Proverbs (19:32), “Better is one who is slow to anger than one who is mighty, and [better is] one who can conquer his own spirit than one who can conquer a city.”

Apotheosis

Ultimately, it is very easy to say “yes” to one’s self; it is far more difficult to say “no”. The latter is the real test of free will, and often the truest expression of freedom. It is only when a person has developed the ability to overcome their inner instincts and their base bodily desires that they are truly free. Otherwise, although they may not be slaves to a Pharaoh, they are still slaves to themselves.

And so, when God freed the Israelites from Pharaoh’s slavery, He did not simply let them “go free”, but rather, gave them a Torah full of mitzvot, to “serve God”, so to speak. Of course, God requires no service – He is infinite, eternal, needing absolutely nothing at all. When we “serve God”, we are really just serving ourselves.

The mitzvot were given only to refine the individual; to perfect one’s character and to free a person from the confines of their body, making them as Godly as possible. God commanded the people: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). We are meant to be like God, for in God’s image we were fashioned. And this is the key to true freedom, since the ultimate source of freedom is God – who is infinite and limitless – and we are commanded to become like Him – infinite and limitless. The potential is seeded deeply within all of us, for we were all made in God’s image.

Next week, we begin reading Pirkei Avot, the “Ethics of the Fathers”, as is customary between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. One of the most profound maxims in these pages was spoken by Rabban Gamliel (2:4), who reveals the secret to definitive freedom. Every person who is serious about attaining true freedom should meditate upon these words every day:

“Make your will like His will, and He will make His will like your will; nullify your will to do His will, and He will nullify the wills of others to do your will.”

Chag sameach!