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The Freedom to Fret

Most people are terrified of freedom. They don’t say they are, of course. But their actions speak louder than words. They work hard to limit their freedom, searching for an emergency burrow with the same quiet desperation of a rabbit that has found itself exposed in an open field. Most people like mandates, because slavishly following instructions makes them feel safe.

People who come from slavery or oppression are not ready for freedom. There is a reason slave rebellions don’t create democracies, and why people who have spent lots of time in prison find it so hard to re-acclimate to society: the road from serfdom is never easy, and it is certainly not quick. The fall of the Soviet Empire has given us no shortage of examples.

When the Jews were in Egypt, G-d never promises them freedom – indeed, the word for “freedom” is not found in the Book of Exodus until well after leaving Egypt. The entire Exodus is about a transference – from servitude to Pharoah to servitude to G-d. The people were not capable of handling the concept or the reality of freedom, and they remained servants the entire way through, guided and led by others, told what to do at every turn. When the people find themselves in a situation where they are not told what to do next, they immediately begin to despair, to cry out in fear and anger, rejecting the merest taste of actual freedom. They are simply not ready for adulthood, for responsibility.

Freedom as a concept is only broached in the text after the Exodus:

When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.

And even then, slaves may well choose to remain as slaves; freedom is frightening.

But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,”

Why would a slave refuse freedom? Because freedom comes with responsibility for one’s own decisions. For example:

If a man has carnal relations with a woman who is a slave and has been designated for another man, but has not been redeemed or given her freedom, there shall be an indemnity; they shall not, however, be put to death, since she has not been freed.

The slave woman is not responsible for what happened to her! If she had her freedom, however, she would be held responsible for not rejecting the man’s approaches. There is real attraction to always seeing oneself as a victim, without responsibility.

The Torah itself supplies the reason why freedom is so frightening. The word for freedom, Chofesh, is the very same word that means “searching.” It is found in several key places in Genesis:

Lavan pursues Jacob, and accuses his son-in-law of stealing Lavan’s idols. The text tells us:

Thus [Lavan] searched, but could not find the household idols.

Think about Lavan’s search – and the searching that we all do. There is something you desperately want, something you feel the need to have. But you are not sure where it is, or even if you will find it at all. There is a hunger and fear in that search, a feeling of unfulfillment, and a complete ignorance of whether or not your search will be successful.

The Torah is telling us that freedom is the same as searching for something you need – it could be to figure yourself out, what decisions you are going to make about your own life. And it comes packaged with its own fear of responsibility, of making the wrong decisions. Freedom comes with frustration, with unrealized hopes and present fears, because in biblical Hebrew to be free means to be searching.

The search is frightening enough to most people in the Muslim world that they would rather be told what to do by an Imam than have to question whether or not they actually think any specific religious faith is right. There is a comfort in following instructions, in knowing that the bigger picture is never your problem. This is why communism and other tyrannies could not be trivially replaced with liberal democracies. It is why most people vote for strongmen, and rely on so-called “experts.”

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter production]

Comments are welcome!

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