Life is full of interesting congruencies, and this week (first on Shabbat, and then during a class on Tuesday evening) the Jewish theme of freedom kept popping up. This Shabbat (Shabbat Shekalim) marked the beginning of a long season of Passover preparation. This special Shabbat is a reminder that with just six weeks to go, it isn’t to early to begin to think about Pesach, and the meaning of freedom in our lives. The shekel (not the new Israeli shekel) was the ancient currency of our people – actually a weight of silver rather than a coin. One half a shekel was the offering that each Israelite was required to pay for the upkeep of our ancient Temple. Shabbat Shekalim, therefore, is a reminder that the Jewish idea of freedom is not a freedom, but on the contrary a reaffirmation of communal responsibility.
Indeed, Jewish freedom is always tied to responsibility. This was stressed in a text that I coincidentally taught this Tuesday evening. In the 6th chapter of Perke Avot, (“The Teachings of our Sages”), we read, “No one is free but the one who engages in Torah study.” Indeed, the text teaches that the very tablets given at Sinai are the ultimate symbol of freedom. Freedom here is the free will choice that each of us is encouraged to make, to accept God’s covenant and to make the Torah central to our lives. It is the choice to take up the responsibility for Tikkun Olam, working to build a world where all are free.
During this period of preparation for Passover there is, however, also another sense of freedom, not in making choices, but rather in freeing ourselves from our personal enslavements. We are asked to look at our lives and to determine the things that keep us down, that prevent us from reaching our potential and impede spiritual growth. These, the rabbis call our personal mitzrayim (the Hebrew word for Egypt, literally meaning a narrow space, referring to the narrow band of green on the sides of the Nile, hemmed in by the desert.) During the six weeks before Passover we are asked to work to break away from our personal narrow mindedness, our enslavements especially from materiality but also on the artificial limitations that we create for ourselves. We are asked to give ourselves the true freedom to be all that we can be.
For us, freedom is not just another word for nothing left to loose, but rather it is another word for the most important things that we have the potential to achieve.