Every spring Jews celebrate the holiday of freedom, Passover. There is an obvious paradox on Passover–for eight days we have more restrictions than the rest of the year. On the Seder night, we don’t talk about whatever we want. We follow a prescribed text. We don’t eat what we want. In fact, we don’t get to eat for a quite a while. And when we do, it’s parsley with saltwater, horseradish, and some really stale, flat, cardboard-like cracker called matzah.
What is the connection between restrictions and freedom? Why do we celebrate a holiday that commemorates the Jews’ liberation from slavery by invoking all sorts of rules and regulations?
As our nation engages in dialogue about personal freedom and the role of government, I am struck by the different ideas we have about the nature of freedom.
It goes without saying that there are rules we agree to live by. What is one of the first words a young child learns? “No!” Adolescents are surely tired of hearing “No alcohol, no drugs, and be home by 11:00.” And while we are blessed not to be living in a totalitarian state, we agree to stop at red lights, refrain from stealing our neighbor’s car, and don’t practice medicine without a license.
Even Libertarians will agree that freedom has limitations.
Success in almost any arena also demands limits and discipline. Athletes watch their diets as they train for endless hours. Musicians practice the scales before they learn to play music. Artists learn technique and writers study grammar and style. The same is true for carpenters, lawyers and teachers.
And once these individuals learn the basics, they engage their talents with discipline to perform and create at even higher levels.
It appears that freedom cannot exist without restraint; that mastery cannot develop without self-regulation; and that lack of discipline ultimately leads to failure or chaos.
This raises the question: What is the nature of freedom? And can it exist without some sort of boundaries, self-restraint or practice?
There have been numerous studies on what makes people happy—family, community and a stable job, or sex, drugs and rock and roll? The data is both consistent and, to some, surprising. People who live a committed lifestyle, whose lives are restricted by their devotion to loved ones and community, are happier than the personal freedom seekers who want it all now and don’t want to be tied down.
I think that the people who describe themselves as “happy” would probably describe that happiness as a deep joy, satisfaction and meaning in their lives. And I believe that equates with the freedom we experience when we discipline our actions, which allows us to express something deeper than superficial material desires.
I’m speaking to a deeper freedom.
What is its connection with that deep joy? What is the freedom observant Jews feel on the Sabbath when they honor the commandment to rest on the seventh day? When they can’t turn on lights, drive a car, or watch TV?
I don’t have words to describe how it feels. But being in community and observing the laws of the Sabbath that stop me from doing anything other than pray, read, eat, hang out with my friends and rest, evokes a deep joy that is almost magical.
And I think one of the common denominators of that joyful freedom invoked by surrendering to some unfathomable set of rituals has to do with the loss of self-consciousness. As we stop defending our egos and engage in a practice that leads to a deeper connection with ourselves and with others, when we feel the freedom to express our truths without fear of rejection, something ineffable happens.
The holiday of Passover invites us to experience that deep freedom, and to express our true natures, our souls.