What Is Freedom?

I have a confession: I am bound in chains and sometimes I like it. My flesh is tethered by bands of leather and holy boxes inscribed with the word of God. The numbness under the straps speaks to me of security, reminds me of an invisible, all powerful touch.

The truth is metaphor’s a nasty animal that rears its head and paws at the dirt and runs off chasing wild game the moment you think it’s majesty might actually be your own.

But the bigger truth is this: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom, about what it means to be free, about liberation, and all the chains we carry.

Another truth: Pesach (or Passover, as it’s known in English) begins tonight. It’s the first time I’ll be able to join the Seder (ritual meal) at my synagogue in years. It’s also a time to reflect on our freedom, to recall that time when we, too, were slaves in a foreign land.

And a final truth (because on Pesach, everything comes in fours, except the plagues, which come in ten): Judaism is a communal religion and whereas almost every other religion I know of can conceive the notion of solitary practitioners, Judaism does not. It cannot. And so while I’ve participated in Jewish functions on campus, none of it relates as deeply to me or as meaningfully as my synagogue: these bonds are deep, seemingly eternal, and my practice of Judaism withers with their stretching across time and space.

However, the faith of Judaism never leaves me, and I pursue careers, relationships, and education, these values impact every decision–I don’t even always realize how Judaism has guided my hand until I reflect upon it to myself or explain myself to others. But just as an isomorphism forms a special subgroup that it sends to the identity of its image, so Judaism has formed the kernel of my body spiritual and corporeal.

I feel as though I’m diverging into infinite tangent fields, while what I’d rather do is converge upon the point of freedom–or as it sometimes feels, the lack thereof.

So pause for a moment: What is freedom?

For many in the US, it seems freedom is a catch phrase for anything we want it to be. But it doesn’t quite stretch that far. I’m free to speak within boundaries. I’m free to move, to go to school, to work–within the confines of an oppressive economy. I am free to practice my religion but sit idly as it’s ignored and infringed upon. I’m free–or at least I should be–to love as I please, to have children, to live a meaningful life–but others believe it’s their right to take that all away from me. And they still think I’m free?

I’m also white. I’m also male. I’m also cisgender. And these place me on a higher tier than others, and I’ve grown up in a caste society that has blinded me to the disproportionate reality of equals deemed inferior for outdated, unjust ideas that stand in the face of God.

In his image, we were created. B’tzelem Elohim.

It’s easy to forget, harder to forgive. But forgiveness, absence of mind, is not a freedom we’re always offered–we can’t always forgive another if that other is a faceless system, a tilted institution. We can’t always forget if we’re subject to aggression every day because of our beliefs, our physical features, our health, our wealth, or even those we love.

Is this freedom? Is this land of freedom, home of the brave, truly as free as it says?

Then again, perhaps freedom is a false aim. The Jews escaped the oppression of the Pharaohs, but they did not escape the rule of God. They adopted a new culture, a new theology, that commanded them, demanded they behave as God says to behave. Was this freedom? They could not mix wool and cotton. They could not eat pork or shellfish. They could not work on the Sabbath and were required to leave harvests for the poor.

Was this freedom?

Or was this liberation?

Freedom implies a lack of restriction, but restrictions are not inherently evil. Who hollers over their lack of freedom to kill? To steal? To abduct children or rape the powerless? No, restrictions are not by nature disastrous–and to believe they are destroys us. It certainly destroyed the economy in 2008 and led us into far more wars than we deserved to have.

“Out of limitations come creativity,” said actress Debbie Allen, and it reminds us that where we are restricted, we have the greatest potential to innovate and grow.

But where we are oppressed, creativity is stifled. We yearn not for freedom, but for liberation–the removal of our chains, the uplifting our entire being, the ascent to freedom–or the ascent to a higher level of freedom, for restrictions will still apply.

They need not be bad restrictions, but they will still define who we are, or rather, who we will become. But in a society that predestines children of color and low-incomes for lives less than those of their wealthier, whiter peers, regardless of personal work or efforts, these restrictions do not help us to grow, but halts our growth before it has even begun.

Earlier this year I had no idea where I would be in only a few months. I still don’t exactly know my future. I placed all my power, all my plans in the hands of others–it was up to Teach for America to decide if I would be accepted; it was up to NC State to decide if I would be continuing toward my master’s degree; and I’m still waiting for the US government to decide if my fiance can come to the US so we can finally be together.

No intelligent bystander would have said in that moment I was not free, but even now, I feel bound by individuals I shall never see face-to-face, by people whose names I will never know. I am free, yet my freedom is limited. But are these limitations from which I must be liberated? How can I tell? Is it even possible to know?

I’m not certain, and today I’m not questioning.

Today it doesn’t matter. For just one moment I’m not staring at the vast sea of economic inequality that ravages our country. For this one instant I’m not looking at the bills being passed that give the legal right to discriminate against LGBT people, those like myself, my fiance, and so many of my friends and peers. For right now I’m turning away from the centuries of misinformation that has led, even today, to worldwide anti-Semitism.

Instead I’m looking backward. I’m looking at those years when I was a slave in Egypt, when I was spilling my blood to build the greatness of others, rather than the greatness of my own, when I could not eat, sleep, or breathe but for the will and whip of another.

And then I’m looking at today: the march across the parted Sea of Reeds, the forty-year journey through the dessert led by a column of God’s light, and the final destination at the Holy Land and all the rivers of milk and honey therein. My ability to write this from the comfort of my room, my privilege of sharing it with you, the food I’ll have before me, the roof I’ll have above me, my health and physical ability, my education, my job security.

And then where it all stops. Those limitations from which we must still be liberated.

Freedom is an unattainable and an unwanted goal, but liberation is deserved, an end toward which we all must labor or an end to which we all will never see.

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