Pesach 5783 – On Freedom by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
From the beginning, Judaism teaches that freedom must be fought for. No event in Jewish history is recalled more often than the Exodus from Egypt; no experience is more frequently invoked to explain Jewish identity. No ritual is more widely observed than Seder night, the celebration of our journey me’avdut lecherut, from slavery to liberty which is at the heart of Pesach, zeman cherutenu, the season of our freedom.
That freedom is in greater danger today than for decades. In 2018, Holocaust scholar Timothy Snyder published The Road to Unfreedom on Russia’s war on Ukraine. From the totalitarian cruelties of Russia and China to the battle fronts against Ukraine, to the illiberal policies of several European countries, and the ballot boxes and streets of our own beloved Israel, the road to unfreedom is a route too many governments are, in different ways and to differing degrees, embarked on.
Being Jewish means unceasing engagement in the struggle for freedom. This is not from any libertarian desire for unlimited choices. On the contrary, our ancestors no sooner left Egypt than they bound themselves to a covenant with God entailing numerous obligations and restrictions. They accepted those commandments because they saw cherut al haluchot, ‘freedom in the tablets’, because they understood that freedom can only be protected by just laws and the unstinting commitment to the service of God and humanity.
Underlying that covenant are at least three principles. The first is human dignity. Judaism’s most basic teaching is that every person is created equal in the image of the one God and that the dignity of every individual must therefore be upheld, whatever their gender, religion, or race.
The second is justice. No commandment is more central than ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ From kings to the ministers of democratic states, the Torah insists that they are subject to the demands of justice and the rulings of an independent judiciary led by judges with integrity who fear God and not the state.
The third is truth. The essence of Judaism’s entire prophetic literature is the telling of truth to power, the courageous readiness to confront in God’s name corruption, greed, and deceit for the sake of the dispossessed and powerless.
Where justice, truth, and human dignity are denied, freedom totters, and tyranny triumphs.
Pesach is not just a memorial to freedoms past, but a commitment to the struggle for freedom today.
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Jonathan Wittenberg is the Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism and of New North London Synagogue