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Freedom!

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil

It was a momentous occasion; Simon was finally under the Chupa with his dear bride Sarah. Hundreds of people eagerly looked on as the final smash of the glass occurred accompanied by music and large chants of Mazal Tov!

The Rabbi stood there and said “I pronounce you man and wife”. Both Simon and Sarah raced their hands to their pockets.

As they took out their phones, the Rabbi continued – “you can now update your Facebook status!”

This is the year 2016!

In October 2014 research was carried out showing that there were more mobile devices in the world than people, and that they were multiplying five times faster than us! No other technology has impacted us like the mobile phone. It’s the fastest growing manmade phenomenon ever — from zero to 6.5 billion in three decades.

Out of the world’s estimated 7.2 billion people, 6.5billion have access to mobile phones. Far fewer — only 4.5 billion people — have access to working toilets.

In a blessed generation of technological advance the question has to be asked, how do we feel? I am sure you feel blessed with the affluence of this generation, but living in this generation comes with its baggage, are we really free, or are we subservient to our surroundings and the ever increasing techno advance?

It was the custom of ancient Royalty to recline on their left (since one holds food with their right hand, or alternatively to prevent the epiglottis from covering the trachea) when indulging in delicacies.

On Pesach we consider ourselves as not only a free nation, but a nation of Royalty. Thus our Sages enacted that on Pesach when participating in the Mitsvot of the night one should lean like Royalty.

Rabbi David Yosef Shlita (son of Rabbi OvadiaZ’l) told me of a case where a person had been a prisoner for many years. He was still in prison and asked the Rabbi whether he should also lean on Pesach. On the one hand Pesach and particularly the leaning is a celebration of freedom, yet in reality he was not free. Was it really necessary for him to lean?

Rabbi David Yosef answered that he was still obligated to lean. Although he was physically in prison, that did not impede on his mental freedom and celebration of Pesach.

Freedom is a choice of mind. If you are in control of your mind, you have the ability to be free even in the most daunting of places.

However, ‘Freedom’ itself has different dimensions, a point reflected in the two Hebrew words used to describe it – Chofesh and Cherut. Chofesh is ‘freedom from’ and Cherut is ‘freedom to’.

Chofesh is what a slave acquires when released from slavery. He or she is free from being subject to someone else’s will. But this kind of liberty is not enough to create a free society. A world in which everyone is free to do what they like begins in anarchy and ends in tyranny. That is why Chofesh is only the beginning of freedom, not its ultimate destination. One only needs look around at the world and in particular the Middle East to understand that ‘freedom from’ is not the end game.

Conversely, Cherut is collective freedom, a society in which my freedom respects yours. A free society is always a moral achievement. It rests on self-restraint and regard for others. The ultimate aim of Torah is to fashion a society on the foundations of justice and compassion, both of which depend on recognising the sovereignty of G-d and the integrity of creation. It is for this reason that we say, ‘Next year may we all be BneiChorin, rather than BneiChofshim. We are stating, ‘May we be free in a way that honours the freedom of all’.

In January 1945, fearing the Russian advance, all prisoners of Auschwitz who could walk were taken on the brutal ‘death marches’. The only people left in the camps were those who were too ill to move. Those remaining were liberated on January 27 1945, a day now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Primo Levi was a survivor of Auschwitz. In his book ‘If This is a Man’, he describes how the worst time of all was the last ten days that they were left alone with only scraps of food and fuel. One day he managed to light a fire and bring some warmth to his fellow prisoners, many of them slowly dying. He writes, “When the broken window was repaired and the stove began to spread its heat, something seemed to relax everyone and at that moment Towarowski (a Franco-Pole of twenty-three) proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to the three of us who had been working. And so it was agreed. Only a day before, a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of the Lager said, ‘eat your own bread and if you can, that of your neighbour,’ and left no room for gratitude. It really meant that the law of the lager was dead. It was the first human gesture that occurred amongst us. I believe that that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change by which we who had not died slowly changed from prisoners to men again.”

The sharing of food was the first act through which slaves became human beings. That was the time they were able to attach themselves to humanity, enabling their free will, conquering their ‘natural tendencies’ in order to give of themselves to become BneiChorin.

The Midrash has a fascinating commentary on the location of the first meeting between G-d and Moshe. It was at the Sneh (the burning bush), that Moshe was delegated to deliver the Jews from the slavery of Egypt. Our Sages relate it was because of the Sneh that the 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 Torah (law) is inconceivable.

That is why Moshe 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 Pesach, 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 Pesach; G-d granted us the gift of physical freedom, so that we might become truly free to be guided by our spiritual selves.

The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, the root of which is Metzar, meaning constriction, narrowness, and limitation. Spiritually, as Pesach approaches, the same energy of freedom that existed at the time of the Exodus is available for us to tap into. It’s the ideal time to ask ourselves: What am I enslaved to that is holding me back from achieving my potential? What are the blockages, constrictions and limitations that stand in the way of accomplishing my goals in any area of my life? Am I a slave to my physical appetites, to social media and devices?

At the Pesach Seder we read, “In every generation we must each regard ourselves as though we personally had just left Egypt.” The goal is to use the tools we have been given to make this happen in the context of our own lives.

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