By Rabbi Daniel Levitt
This week’s Torah portion, Bo, marks the beginning of the Jewish people’s freedom from slavery in Egypt. It begins with the last three of the 10 plagues, and then continues with Pharaoh allowing the people to go free and of their preparations to leave. We learn a little bit about the Jewish concept of freedom through this narrative.
On the eve of the Jewish people’s departure from Egypt, Moses speaks to the people about educating their children on three different occasions. This is important because it is teaching us that the importance of freedom is about much more than just achieving freedom from bondage for the sake of freedom alone.
If all the Torah wanted to teach was that a person shouldn’t have be shackled, Moses could have spoken about how great it will be to be free and how amazing God is for freeing the Jews alone. Instead, he chooses to reveal the lessons about freedom through the perspective of what are the opportunities available when a person is free. Freedom needs to become a positive value celebrating and experiencing what is gained through freedom.
According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, one of the core institutions needed for freedom to be experienced and upheld is education. Sacks wrote, “You must tell your children (and the children of your community) about slavery and the long journey to liberation. They must annually taste the bread of affliction and bitter herbs of slave labor. They must know what oppression feels like if they are to fight against it. So Jews became the people whose passion was education, whose citadels were schools, and whose heroes were teachers.”
True freedom is experienced in a community’s ability to educate, to expand minds and perspectives, to tolerate opposing ideas rooted in truth, and to choose to be inspired to act according to truths learned when a community can inspire action through education.
Our society has been plagued by false information inspiring countless people to act in hurtful and destructive ways. This is the difference between propaganda and education. Freedom and propaganda are mutually exclusive because propaganda is the opposite of education; it is based on falsehoods and seeks to control.
Propaganda enslaves people to a false understanding of reality and seeks to control people’s behavior, while education enlightens people with the ability to think critically, think for themselves, and hopefully to be inspired to help rather than be controlled to do harm.
What should our response be to this sad state of events, how can we all learn from recent events? One approach could be to ask ourselves in what way are we deficient in our desire to truly learn about issues in depth in a way that not only supports my worldview, but challenges me to think deeper, in a more nuanced way, to understand important issues from multiple (factual) perspectives in a way that allows us to engage in dialogue with people we disagree with.
Too often, we seek comfort in the people and opinions who agree with us and conform to our sense of what’s right, and we demonize the “other” when it challenges this sense of security. The digital world’s consumption of news media has exacerbated this tendency of human nature and, as a result, the world feels more polarized than it has in recent memory. Most of us lament this reality with no idea how to overcome this wave of educational enslavement.
According to Rabbi Sacks, the answer to truly being free is to celebrate and strengthen the value of true education, the value of having a passion for truth; whether or not it conforms to our previously held notions, and allows us to have a conversation with people we disagree with based on a shared set of facts.
There is a line from Pirkei Avoth 6:2 which says, “There is no one so free as one who occupies himself with the study of Torah.” The intellectual heritage of Torah is one where we value truth above all other factors. There needs to be a culture around the way in which we digest news and information where people with differing opinions are able to engage in respectful dialogue because everyone can at least agree on a shared set of facts, and everyone can respect another perspective as having value, and everyone can feel confident that the other has not been radicalized by propaganda. That is how truth and freedom are maintained.
When we seek to attack or silence the valid factual ideas we don’t like and we disagree with, we are not acting within the spirit of Judaism, and we are risking our freedom. Because true freedom is about the ability to rise above our passions, to control ourselves, and in the words of Rabbi Sacks, “To control oneself without having to be controlled by others.”
May we all be blessed to seek to educate ourselves, to value truth above all else, and may the power of truth mend our fractured world. Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Daniel Levitt is the executive director of Hillel at Temple University: the Rosen Center. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.