In the prayers recited during the festival of Pesach we name the holiday zeman cheruteinu—“the time of our freedom.” In daily prayers throughout the year, we similarly recall how God took us out of Egypt “to everlasting freedom.” These terms are rabbinic in their origin. The Mishnah, for instance, notes that we are duty-bound to offer thanks to Him “who performed all these miracles for us and for our fathers and brought us forth from bondage to freedom” (Pesachim 10:5).
Yet, when we search the passages of the Bible itself, it seems that the concepts of freedom and liberty are entirely absent from the biblical narration of our exodus from Egypt. Instead of such expressions, the Torah speaks of redemption that constituted an entry into the service of God. Thus, Moshe does not ask Pharaoh to simply release the people, but demands, under Divine instruction: “So said Hashem: Send forth my nation and they will serve Me” (Shemos 7:26). At the very outset, when God gives Moshe a sign of the coming redemption, He tells him: “When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain” (Shemos 3:12).
When we search the passages of the Bible itself, it seems that the concept of freedom is entirely absent from the biblical narration of our exodus from Egypt
But what about liberty?
When the Torah wishes to, it certainly knows how to express a person’s freedom from bondage and slavery. A Jewish slave, for instance, must work for six years, “and on the seventh he is set free (Yeitzei La-Chofshi)” (Shemos 21:2). Likewise, a master who strikes his non-Jewish slave must “send him to his freedom, in lieu of his eye” (Shemos 21:26). Yet, when it comes to our redemption from Egypt the Torah refrains from using such terminology and instead mentions expressions such as redemption (pidyon), salvation (hatzala), and taking out (hotza’a). Yes, God takes us out from the “house of bondage,” as mentioned at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, but He brings us not to the havens of freedom and liberty but rather to the Divine service outlined in the same Commandments.
What lies behind the biblical omission of liberty in the context of our redemption from Egypt? And how is this omission resolved with the freedom so emphasized in our festival liturgy?
Rousseau: Coerced Liberty
Perhaps a useful entry point for this discussion is the tension, endlessly discussed by enlightenment thinkers, between individual liberty and centralized political authority. Prominent among these was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among the greatest and most influential thinkers of the enlightenment tradition.
Like others before and (especially) after him, Rousseau championed the value of individual liberty, also advocating for equality—for without equality liberty is evasive. And like the Founding Fathers, he saw liberty as a natural quality of man. Among the most famous of all enlightenment quotes is the opening statement of Rousseau’s The Social Contract: “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau saw the authoritarian regimes common to his time as an aberration from the natural state of man, and longed for a return, to the degree possible within a political framework, to the original (and ideal) human condition.
As was the vogue of his time, Rousseau employed the “social contract” idea, by which the authority to govern derives from a contract between citizens, who sacrifice part of their own freedom on behalf of the communal good. But if for Hobbes the social contract emerges from the need to save us from the violence and danger of the natural state of humanity, Rousseau’s optimism did not allow him to follow the same line of thought. For him, the natural human state was not dangerous nor violent, and it made little sense for people to sacrifice their freedom on the altar of centralized authority.
The clear danger inherent to Rousseau’s position is that a claim to understanding the General Will immediately transforms into a legitimate claim, or even moral obligation, to employ all required means to bring those who stray from it back into line
Rousseau, therefore, searched for another means of resolving man’s natural freedom and its problematic absence in the social contract. The solution he found was the General Will. In Rousseau’s conception, centralized authority is not absolute and enslaving, as in the Hobbesian world, demanding that man surrenders his freedom for the greater good. It is not even a representative administration, as in the Lockean conception, which serves to save the people from tyranny and oppression. Rather, the ideal authority is the free rule of the people themselves, governed under their own General Will, which brings them liberty, harmony, and unity. The General Will, which emerges from the unified entirety of the people, is the greatest possible realization of freedom and liberty, superior to any expression that an individual citizen can achieve. It is the purified will of every individual, representing the people better than they can represent themselves—even if they think otherwise.
Rousseau thus resolved the tension between individual liberty and central authority. Under the General Will, there is no contradiction or tension, because the central authority itself represents the true, inner will of each person, even if he is unaware of this. Rousseau naturally tended toward a democratic system, in which the people rule themselves, but he recognized the impracticability of democracy for certain societies and did not rule out the legitimacy of other forms of government. Whatever the system, central authority must represent the General Will, and exercise its power toward its realization.
Many, such as the prominent Israeli thinker Jacob Talmon, have argued that Rousseau describes a kind of “totalitarian democracy.” Robespierre’s murderous leadership is commonly ascribed to Rousseau’s thought, unleashed by a radicalized regime from the shackles of political moderation. The clear danger inherent to Rousseau’s position is that a claim to understanding the General Will immediately transforms into a legitimate claim, or even moral obligation, to employ all required means to bring those who stray from it back into line. Freedom is the ultimate goal; but since freedom inheres in the General Will, which might be understood by an elite few alone, those few have the legitimate right (and duty) to “coerce men”—Rousseau’s own words—“to be free.”
Liberty as Precondition
The Torah approach to the tension between liberty and authority departs from an altogether different starting point. Rousseau, alongside others in the liberal tradition, grant ultimate value to human autonomy. Liberty, in and of itself, is the supreme value, and the purpose of regimes is to ensure the people’s liberty.
By contrast, in the Torah tradition liberty is not presented as an independent value, but rather as a crucial means by which to achieve an ultimate end. This end is not the freedom to choose, but the choice of entering into relationships with others—relationships that involve duty, responsibility, and fidelity. The relationship, with all it entails, is the end. Freedom is the means.
The Torah, and the Jewish tradition broadly writ, means to constitute elevated interpersonal relationships between one person and his or her Other. First and foremost among others is God Himself, but included in the definition are family, friends, and acquaintances. The greatest principle of the Torah, stated Rabbi Akiva, is “love your fellow as yourself” (Yerushalmi, Nedarim 30b). A necessary precondition for achieving this is liberty; a person who is enslaved cannot engage in the fullness of a relationship, and neither can a true relationship be coerced. The end, however, is the relationship rather than liberty per se.
In the Torah tradition liberty is not presented as an independent value, but rather as a crucial means by which to achieve an ultimate end. This end is not the freedom to choose, but the choice of entering into relationships with others—relationships that involve duty, responsibility, and fidelity
The entire Torah tells the story of a relationship: the relationship between God and the nation of Israel. Like all human bonds, the historical playing out of the relationship knows many peaks and troughs, rises and falls. We read of these in the books of Shemos, Bamidbar (especially), and the books of the Prophets. At its lowest points, there is infidelity and betrayal, rage and destruction. At its climax, there is the love of Shir Ha-Shirim, which depicts the harmonious intimacy of husband and wife. This expression itself, the ultimate bonding of two who are others to one another, is what we call sanctity, holiness. To cite Rabbi Akiva once more, “all the Writings are holy, but Shir Ha-Shirim is the holy of holies” (Mishnah, Yadayim 3:5).
In the heart of the Jerusalem Temple, the place where the Divine Spirit rests on the Jewish People, we find the golden Cherubs, male and female forms embraced together in a graphic representation of the love between God and His people (Yoma 54a). Biblical descriptions of the final redemption present a similar expression of intimate love: “For like a wife who had been forsaken and melancholy has Hashem called you; and like a wife of one’s youth who had become despised, said your God” (Yeshayahu 54:6).
This matter of relationship is itself the “service of Hashem” for which we departed Egypt. It is qualitatively different from the idolatrous service of other gods, which is about “give and take” rather than relationship. A worshiper “gives the god his due” and the respective god—of love, wealth, or power—bestows his gifts on the worshipper. By distinction—a distinction emphasized time and again throughout the Torah—our service of God is one of relationship, of covenant rather than of transactional contract. We place our trust in Hashem, we make space for Him in our lives and love Him—and he reciprocates with His own love, His closeness, and His blessing.
Before we entered our relationship with God, we first had to be redeemed from Egyptian bondage and oppression. Somebody who lives under an external yoke cannot strike a covenant with others; he cannot commit himself to the duties and fidelity that true relationships demand, for his duty and fidelity are not his to allocate. He cannot forge the space within himself, in his mind and in his heart, for others to fill, for it is fully occupied by his master. The Sages write in this spirit that a slave cannot constitute a full marital relationship and that in sexual matters he is “content with his promiscuity” (Gittin 13a). Bereft of freedom, he lacks the most basic tool required for human relationships.
But in the Torah’s narration of our exodus from Egypt, the focus is not freedom per se—certainly not individual freedom (chofesh)—but rather the end to which that freedom is directed: forming our relationship with God. “When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain.” The Sages, employing the word cherut as a reference to national (political) freedom, emphasize the flip side of the coin. In our redemption from Egypt we gained national liberty, a precondition to entering the relationship uniquely latent in serving Hashem.
The correlation between liberty and relationship runs deeper still.
When a person succeeds in constituting a relationship, creating the space within himself for the other to enter, he releases himself from the narrowness of his own person and his own circumstances. Relationship empowers him to escape the boundaries of his own horizons, his subjective vision, and the conditions into which he was born. The entry of another into his life brings him a new perspective, one that he had no means of reaching with his own strength. Emmanuel Levinas expressed this sentiment when he wrote that only the other can “release me from my own existence, from my imprisonment in the narrow straits of the here and now.”
In this sense, the greatest Other is doubtless God himself. When we make room for Him in our lives, in our hearts, we are indeed released from the constraints of the here and now. In the words of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi, “The slaves of time are slaves of a slave; only the servant of God is free.” As slaves of time, ruled upon by the external forces of circumstances beyond our control, we are stuck with ourselves alone, unable to touch the redemptive force of relationship. As servants of God, our very existence enters the framework of a relationship. We are freed.
As slaves of time, ruled upon by the external forces of circumstances beyond our control, we are stuck with ourselves alone, unable to touch the redemptive force of relationship. As servants of God, our very existence enters the framework of a relationship. We are freed
Simple liberty, which Isaiah Berlin termed “negative liberty,” is thus a precondition for reaching higher liberty—the liberty we experience when the other enters our own world. Moreover, the simple liberty can be undone, for a freed slave can be someday recaptured. The liberty of relationship, by contrast, is irreversible. Once experienced, a person is forever freed, hence the Sages’ reference to “everlasting freedom.” The relationship with Hashem—his “service,” as the Torah calls it—is in this sense cherut itself.
In his song “Ma liberté,” French (and also Jewish) songwriter Georges Moustaki wrote of how he ultimately betrayed his liberty when he entered the covenant of marriage: “And I betrayed you / For a prison of love / And it’s beautiful jail-keeper.” But the Talmudic Sages see marriage in an altogether different light—a light of freedom and liberty. For them, the passage “God settles the solitary into a family, He releases those bound in fetters,” applies to marriage, which releases a person from his own shackles (Vayikra Rabba 8:1).
In Rousseau’s world, human institutions are shackles that deny our natural freedom. Unsurprisingly, he was no fan of marriage, explaining that the institution is only necessary for the fallen state of man when his self-love depends on others’ appreciation. Unfortunately, many in today’s Western culture have endorsed the perspective, as evidenced by the frailty of the modern family. But for the Torah, the institution of marriage itself bequeaths us freedom. In marriage, the ultimate relationship between man and woman, we find the highest liberty a person can achieve within the limits of interpersonal relationships. The only higher freedom inheres in the relationship between God and Israel. To achieve it we first had to achieve our freedom from Egypt, from the bondage of others. But this was only a preparation for the ultimate liberty of relationship with God.
The Seder-Night Conundrum: Freedom and Duty
Seder Night is a night of contradiction. On the one hand, we give full articulation to the freedom of redemption from Egyptian bondage. This freedom is expressed in the four cups of wine we drink, in our reclining “as the way of kings,” and in the general atmosphere of Seder Night, imbued as it is with the sweet opulence of liberty. But on the other hand, Seder Night is replete with obligations. Eating the matza is an obligation; eating the Pascal Lamb, though we do not do so today, is an obligation; telling the very tale of our freedom, the Passover Haggadah, is an obligation; the entire Seder is an obligation. Are we expressing our liberty or our duty, our freedom or our obligation?
The answer, of course, is both. The rabbinic emphasis of Pesach is freedom. As mentioned at the outset, we refer to Pesach as “the time of our freedom,” and this spirit defines the character of Seder Night, latent in such rabbinic enactments as the four cups of wine, the obligation to recline in the manner of royalty, the family feast of Seder Night, and so on. But the Torah emphasis is not on freedom per se, understood as “freedom from,” but on what we choose to do with our freedom. And our choice, as expressed in the many duties of Seder Night, is to willingly enter into a relationship with God—a choice that elevates our freedom to an infinitely higher plane.
But the Torah emphasis is not on the freedom itself, but on what we choose to do with our freedom. And our choice, as expressed in the many duties of Seder Night, is to willingly enter into a relationship with God—a choice that elevates our freedom to an infinitely higher plane
We thus offer God our service—our trust, our hope, our love—and He, in turn, offers us His love and protection. The passages in Yechezkel, which describe the birth of the Jewish people out of Egypt, emphasize precisely this love: “I passed by you and saw you, and behold, your time was the time of love; and I spread the hems of My garment over you and covered your nakedness; and I took an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you” (Yechezkel 16:8). Or in the famous words of Seder Night: “In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.” Hashem not only took us out from Egypt but also granted us “everlasting freedom,” as we mention in the daily Maariv prayer. Trust in Hashem renders us truly free, truly redeemed.
The relationship of covenant, of love, of duty, is the end for which we emerged, a free people, from Egypt. In the euphoria of liberty that characterizes our Pesach celebration, we should be sure to remember what Jewish freedom truly means.
2 thoughts on “Festival of Freedom? Between Liberty and Duty on Pesach”
This is one of the most insightful and instructive articles on the concept of freedom ever written. And it is eloquent. Kudos to the author.
Thank you for this rare article. Enlightening.