Let My People Know

"On Being Free"

Beginning yesterday, and continuing through Friday, I am selecting from the teachings of Rabbi Steinsaltz directly related to the inner meaning of Passover. The following is an excerpt from the title essay of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s book, On Being Free.

On Being Free

Freedom and slavery appear to be simple opposites, each defined as the absence of the other: slavery, the absence of freedom; freedom, the absence of slavery.

But each of these terms must be understood without reference to the other.

Throwing off one’s fetters does not necessarily mean that one has entered into a state of freedom. Slavery is that condition in which a person is always subject to the will of another.

Freedom, on the other hand, is the ability to act upon, and carry out, one’s own independent will.

The individual who lacks a will of his own does not become free once he is unshackled: he is simply a slave without a master, or, in the case of a people, those whose overlords have abandoned them.

Between ceasing to be a slave and acquiring freedom, the individual must thus pass through an intermediate stage in his progress without which he cannot become truly free—he must develop inner qualities of his own.

The miracle of the Exodus was not completed with the people’s departure from the house of bondage; they needed to develop to become a truly free people and not merely runaway slaves.

Their situation as they stood on the banks of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit was described by the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra: the children of Israel could not even think of putting up any sort of opposition to Pharaoh, for they had been brought up in slavery, and they were so accustomed that all their old subservient attitudes overcame them afresh at the sight of their former masters.

Only after the entire generation that had lived in bondage had perished in the wilderness could their descendants enter the Land of Israel and establish themselves as a free people.

In other words, the slave is doubly bound, first of all by his own subjugation to another’s will, and secondly by his lack of a will and a personality of his own.

A person who retains his own essential character can never completely be enslaved; and, conversely, a person who has no independent self-image can never truly be free.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

from “On Being Free”, p.19-20, in On Being Free (Jason Aronson, 1995)