Office of the Chief Rabbi

Thought for the Day: What is freedom?

As we approach the festival of Pesach, the Chief Rabbi teaches us that ‘freedom is not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of a meaningful route to self-fulfilment’.

Listen to the Audio and read the full transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT:

It is one of the oldest and most profound questions ever to confront human civilisation: What is freedom? As the Jewish world prepares for Passover which starts next week, marking the Exodus of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, we are encouraged to grapple with this very question.

We have more freedom of choice now than at any time in history. Whatever your taste in food, clothing or entertainment, it is instantly available at the tap of your smartphone. We have come to expect greater choice and sometimes even to demand it.

‘We have more freedom of choice now than at any time in history’

But, in his book, ‘The Paradox of Choice’, American Psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that ‘choice overload’ can be seriously harmful. He explains that the fear that there could be a better option somewhere out there, can have the effect of paralysing us in a state of cognitive dissonance, so that in the end we make no choice at all. Sometimes, the more important the choice, the more trapped we feel. And, so, while choice might often create the illusion of freedom, it cannot be the whole picture.

In the Biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt, as the impact of the ten plagues was about to reach its climax, but before they did so, the Israelites publicly declared and celebrated their freedom whilst still slaves to their Egyptian overlords. How can one explain this?

The answer is both powerful and life affirming. On the 19th April 1943, the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto told stories and sang songs at a makeshift Passover meal, celebrating their freedom. The Ghetto, however, was anything but free and Nazi soldiers were in the process of liquidating it.

Freedom is not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of a meaningful route to self-fulfilment. Both the Israelites and the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto found spiritual freedom even in the midst of the most extreme physical hardship.

A life free from oppression can still be devoid of meaning and enrichment when we mistakenly equate freedom with the ability to choose freely. That, in fact, makes us prisoners of a different kind.

‘A life free from oppression can still be devoid of meaning and enrichment when we mistakenly equate freedom with the ability to choose freely’

In Jewish tradition we differentiate between two concepts: yi’ud, which means fate and goral, which means destiny. My fate is the hand of cards that I am dealt. My destiny is how I choose to play them.

The American Theologian, Peter Marshall, said: “May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.” Regardless of the hand that we are dealt, every one of us is free to shape our own destiny even in the most challenging of times.

 

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