Whether you’ve seen Charlton Hesston in “The Ten Commandments”, “The Prince of Egypt,” or only heard the spirituals of African American slaves, the words “Let My People Go” resonate during this season.
The eight day holiday of Passover concluded on Thursday April 21. Known as the “Festival of Freedom”, Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Jewish People from slavery in Egypt in the year 1312 B.C.E.
The well-known phrase “Let My People Go” is actually the word of G-d, echoed by Moses (leader of the Jewish People) to Pharaoh, and recorded in the bible (Exodus 7:16). What is not known, however, is the second half of the same phrase – “Let my People Go so that they shall serve Me (G-d).” The implication being: Freedom means serving G-d.
A contradiction in terms? Maybe not.
Throwing off one’s fetters does not necessarily mean that one has entered into a state of freedom. The ability to do as one pleases is called chaos, not freedom.
Slavery is that condition in which a person is always subject to the will of another. Freedom, on the other hand, is the ability to act upon, and carry out, one’s own independent will.
The individual who lacks a will of his own does not become free once he is unshackled. He is simply a slave without a master. Between ceasing to be a slave and acquiring freedom, the individual must develop inner qualities of his own. He must express his true human self and fulfill that unique mission for which G-d placed him on earth– “so that they shall serve Me.”
Today, we bring liberty and democracy to peoples across the globe, giving them the freedom to decide their own future. Yet this ability alone is not enough and in many cases can become self-destructive. Democratically elected tyrants and perpetrators of evil are certainly not what our founding fathers had in mind. True liberty can only be expressed by ascribing to the ethical and moral code given to all mankind – “In G-d We Trust.”
Benjamin Franklin said it succinctly: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!”
Another example of this seeming paradox is found in the similarity of two Hebrew words: The Hebrew word for ‘engrave’ (Charut) and the Hebrew word for ‘freedom’ (Cherut). Both contain the same Hebrew letters in the same order. Whereas engraving connotes something confined and restricted by boundaries, our perception of freedom seems to imply some sense of fluidity; the lack of restriction. How can we fuse the two ideas?
Here again Judaism teaches that these two concepts do not contradict each other. In fact there is an inherent bond between the two. It is only through the boundaries of being a moral human being and doing ‘mitzvahs’, good deeds, that we create the parameters and limitations necessary to taste true freedom. As in food: Healthy dieting and regimented nutrition, not reckless and rampant eating, liberate many a person from the confines of uncontrolled appetite and temptation.
As an otherwise unremarkable politician once said, “Democracy without morality is impossible.”