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The Path to Freedom

By Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon | Issue Date: Spring 2015

In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor, set himself on fire in protest of continued harassment that was inflicted on him by local Tunisian authorities. His suffering ignited a rebellion that brought down the Tunisian government and shook the Arab world. Soon the rage spread throughout many Arab countries, and major street protests erupted against oppressive regimes, targeting their human rights violations and political corruption. Summoned by the then-new social media, millions of people filled the streets, particularly young men and women craving freedom and a future beyond despair. For a brief moment, the light of hope shone bright.

It is hard to believe what has since happened to the Arab Spring. With the exception of Tunisia, aspirations for freedom and democracy have been quelled by repressive dictatorships or civil war, utter chaos and gruesome violence. In recent months, we have witnessed some of the most shocking cruelty at the hands of ISIS as well as horrific terrorist attacks in the East and in the West. Thousands of young people in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and America find hatred and extreme violence so compelling that they run to enlist with the forces of evil and darkness. As we watch the downward spiral, we can feel the prophet Isaiah’s despair: “…behold distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish, and outspread thick darkness.” (Is. 8:22)

What happened to the call for freedom? As a person of faith, I have no doubt that freedom will come—sooner or later. Freedom is part of the divine design, and there is nothing that can stop it from taking root in humanity. The soul is free and is incompatible with oppression and repression. The Creator placed freedom at the core of the human soul because only free men and women can fully serve God, only free men and women can truly love and create.

But only a freedom movement that is embedded in humility and selflessness can survive. Only a freedom movement that is embedded in a rigorous discipline of honest questioning and self- criticism will not be extinguished by the forces of obscurantism and evil. Only a freedom movement that holds a courageous and radically inclusive social vision, committed to fighting ignorance and opening the mind, will not succumb. Any “freedom movement” based on misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, or anti-intellectualism will not stand. Any freedom movement that stands for less than humanity and peace will not survive.

These are some of the lessons that Pesah comes to remind us of, lest we forget and our freedom degenerate. However, only if we allow the festival to draw us into serious exploration, and questioning will freedom have a chance to grow and expand in and around us. Questions are at the center of the Pesah seder and the remembrance of the Exodus. The mitzvah to tell the story of the Exodus comes as a response to the Four Questions and the Four Children. We are urged to ask, and our questions must be inquisitive, sharp–even subversive–and they must open us to honest self-criticism. Our questions must be followed by firm answers and actions.

For example, our call of, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” must be true and must become a commitment. There will be no freedom while hunger and poverty persist. In addition, our narrative of the Exodus must expose not only the Pharaohs outside ourselves, but also those inside us. Anything inside our soul, or inside our own communities and our own people that represses souls, bodies or minds must be confronted.

As we retell the story of the Exodus, we must ask: What does it mean to give each person their place and to honor their existence? We must also know that the issue of freedom doesn’t end with Pesah. It is the path from Pesah (the celebration of our liberation) to Shavuot (the moment of the covenant with God at Sinai) that gives freedom its true meaning and purpose. Freedom from oppression is never sufficient and is never the ultimate goal. It is the freedom to choose to live by the unwavering commitment to a vision greater than ourselves, a vision that advances God’s purpose of justice, dignity and peace for all, that secures and elevates our freedom.

The world is going through hard and perplexing times, and I believe that precisely at this time the Jewish people have a calling to model the true meaning of freedom. Our liberation from Mitzrayim, the narrowest and most oppressive of places, was for the sake of our learning and internalizing so that we could teach humanity, by example, how to use our freedom to serve God’s purpose in the world. I pray that we may take our role seriously and be worthy of our calling.

This year the world is still enslaved; next year may it be freer.