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    There’s no such thing as freedom

    There are two Pesachs – the one we celebrate at the seder, and the hidden Pesach which is part of our prayers every day: morning and evening we speak of going out from Egypt and the blessings of freedom.

    The first Pesach began our national history. It also launched our career as the world’s teacher of morality, dedicated to the eternal values of freedom, human rights and dignity. The whole seder revolves around the Pesach principle of freedom, oscillating in word, song and symbol between the bitterness of slavery and the joy of freedom.

    Yet Pesach is nothing without Shavu’ot. Pesach leads to Shavu’ot; Shavu’ot completes Pesach. The seven weeks of the Omer which link them ensure they are tightly bound together. Yet they seem to stand for totally incompatible principles – on the one hand freedom, on the other law, the constraining of freedom. It seems our ancestors were not to be allowed to enjoy their liberation! After centuries of enslavement, they had only seven weeks of freedom before once again being restrained and restricted.

    Slavery in Egypt, from the Barcelona Haggadah, 14th century

    The sages had an answer to the paradox. “No-one,” they said, “is free unless they are subject to the Torah”. It is an arresting statement, as the sages intended it to be. For they had made a remarkable discovery. There is no such thing as freedom, at least in the sense of being absolutely free. Only God has that kind of freedom.

    Rabbi JB Soloveitchik says, “Is man ever truly free? Is he not a prisoner of natural law, subject to the caprices of his state of health, the intrusion of accidents, and the ever hovering spectre of possible death? These are physiological constraints. Man is also subject to social pressures: the mores of his society, the biases of his family, and the prejudices of his class. In reality, supposedly free man is buffeted, pressured, coerced, and restricted in his options, even if no human taskmaster hovers over him.”

    What we have is a choice between constraints – man-made tyrannies or pressures which stop me being myself, or a life under God who enables me to become what I have the capacity to be. Rabindranath Tagore says, “I have on my desk a violin string. It is not fixed into my violin. It is free to move, to be blown anywhere. What it cannot do is to make music. But when I fasten it into my violin, it is no longer free to move. But it is free for the first time to make music.”

    Our choice is not freedom or no-freedom. It is the freedom to choose our own master – other human beings, or God. From God, we get a better deal.

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