Free at Last – Can You Define That, Please!


We say it and we pray it, so it must be true. Pesach, z'man cheiruteinu: "Passover, the time of our freedom." Let's put that theory to the test, shall we?

Back-breaking cleaning performed at breakneck speed every day for two weeks prior to the holiday; running to this store and negotiating that long line to buy Passover products; cruising and careening in another store to buy those other special Passover items. I don't know about you, but I'm not yet ready to sing that old spiritual and proclaim: "Free at last, free at last!"

Indulge me in a story. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Herman Wouk recounts an amazing anecdote in his eminently readable, The Will to Live On. This is the sequel to This Is My God, perhaps a classic of modern Jewish literature.

In 1955, the HaBimah Theatre in Tel Aviv debuted, in Hebrew, Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. During the intermission, former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion went up to Wouk, and invited him and his wife to visit the premier's home at Kibbutz Sde Boker, in the Negev.

The next day, Wouk recounts, a command car followed by a Jeep with a mounted machine gun came to pick them up. It was, after all, 1955, and fedayeen terrorists were relentlessly attacking and assaulting the fledgling yishuv where Ben-Gurion lived.

After a visit in which philosophy, history, literature and even politics was discussed, Ben-Gurion said to Wouk as he was leaving, "You must return here to live. This is the only place for Jews like you." And listen to this key line: "Here, you will be free."

You can well imagine what Wouk was thinking – after all, he wasn't picked up in an elegant limo but in an armed military half-track. "Free?" Wouk boomed out in perplexity. "Enemies are ringing you, their leaders publicly threatening to wipe out the 'Zionist entity,' your roads are impassable after sundown – free?"

Listen carefully to the reply: "I did not say safe. I said free."

There are two words in Hebrew for freedom. One is cheirut (think of Menachem Begin's political party) and chofesh (think of the phrase in "Hatikvah," lihyot am chofshi). The latter notion of freedom means, to appropriate Sir Isaiah Berlin's coinage, "negative liberty" – that is, freedom from something.

The Essential Challenge

The former term carries a positive and active valence. It's the one that our sages chose to insert into our liturgy because it is the essential challenge and imperative of being a Jew; it's the salient message that is meant to be impressed on our psyches. Cheirut and z'man cheiruteinu mean "freedom to."

In a word, our historical exodus from Egypt was not merely a freedom from persecution; it ultimately is meant to lead to a religious rendezvous of sorts – a "freedom to." Being a Jew is about reclaiming and living the Jewish story on a daily basis. It's about the Haggadah relating and recounting that story – our story – and, more important, also being its living commentary.

Yes, in Egypt we were a people of Jews; leaving Egypt demanded that we become a Jewish people, a people with a purpose.

I can't say for sure whether Ben-Gurion was alluding to this amazing teaching in Pirkei Avot – Ethics of the Fathers – but he grasped its essence. The rabbis noticed that the same four letters that make the Hebrew word for "positive freedom," cheirut, make up the four-letter word (with a slightly different pronunciation) that also means "engraved." Our sages make a bold claim: "One is only truly free if the words of Torah and tradition are engraved on one's heart."

May we, the 100th-plus generation of those who left Egypt, maintain the will to live on, and to do so in a Jewishly meaningful and purposeful way.

Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here