Freedom and responsibilty

We are a people that has undergone peaks and valleys.  We have had great achievements, but also fallen into great tragedy.  We are a people with human frailties. That is the challenge in this age of self-interest. Introspection as Passover ends.

Prof. (Emer.) Jerry Lambert

Judaism Torah scroll at the Klausen synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic
Torah scroll at the Klausen synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic

Among the twelve “words” he wrote providing facts and insights on the holiday of freedom, Zman Cheiruteinu, Time of Our Freedom, Amb. (ret.) Yoram Ettinger related the words ,אַחֲרָיוּת ,חֵרוּת and .אַחַרִי

The shiurei chaim, life lessons, contained within these relationships cry out for elucidation.

The Hebrew word for “freedom” and “liberty,” חֵרוּת, and the Hebrew word for “responsibility,” אַחֲרָיוּת, share the same חרת root, engrave.  On Mount Sinai, The tablets were G-d’s work, and the writing was G-d’s writing, חָר֖וּת, incised upon the tablets.  Philogolical interrelationships are not happenstance, especially in the Holy Tongue.  Might we then conclude that Hashem engraved or incised upon us the concrete connection between freedom and responsibility, the principle that with freedom comes responsibility?

Our freedom from Egyptian slavery was wrought by Hashem, not Moshe.  Although Moshe was His agent, Hashem was fully responsible for the Exodus.  You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time, Exodus 12:17, and the theme is repeated throughout Tanach.

As we read later, You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. “The primary purpose of the Exodus was more than rescuing a people from bondage; it was to bring the Israelites to G-d and His moral law,” Dennis Prager writes in “The Rational Bible.”  With our freedom came the responsibility to follow His instructions on how to live: the whole purpose of Torah.  That responsibility carries promise: Observe His laws and commandments, which I enjoin upon you this day, that it may go well with you and your children after you, and that you may long remain in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you for all time.

I the L-rd, in My grace, have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand.  I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations.  Note that we are to be “a light of the nations,” לְאֹ֥ור גֹויִֽם (construct form), not "a light to the nations," as is usually translated, pointed out by Moshe Kempinski.

With our freedom came the responsibility to talk, speak and act in a manner that exemplifies decency, morality and compassion, to personify Torah.  As Micah wrote, He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord ask of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk circumspectly with your G-d?

But being a light of the nations does not end there.  We Jews also have a spiritual responsibility. If our entire reality consists only of the physical aspect of our world and we do not live in a deeper divine consciousness, we are not living up to our responsibilities as a nation.  As appointed kingdom of priests and a holy nation, we must internalize the spiritual and divine dimension of the universe so we may then shine forth as a beacon that deep appreciation of spirituality and G-dliness outward to others, who will shipwreck without a guiding light.  But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, that shines brighter and brighter until the full day.

Now, dare we snorkel below the Peshat, literal meaning, and scrutinize the Remez, hidden, responsibility of being a light of the nations, of our moral law as documented by Torah, of our responsibility to the One Who brought our ranks out of the land of Egypt?

Personal responsibility for our actions is so very biblical: The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.  Tell the righteous it will be well with them, for they will enjoy the fruit of their deeds.  Woe to the wicked! Disaster is upon them! They will be paid back for what their hands have done. ... be sure your sin will find you out.

Hashem clearly defined right and wrong, and His people were expected to do what was right.  Witness Cain, Jonah, Achan, even Judah and David.

We live in an age of self-interest.  As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks senses, “the West is in ‘dark’ times.  His diagnosis is that we have lost sight as a society of the “we” – the common good – because we have been seduced by the ‘I’ of individualism.  ‘I just felt,’ he explains, ‘that I ought to point out what happens when you let go of morality.’ ”  Therefore he has just written a book, “Morality.”

Our heritage as a nation emphasizes “we” in the Haggadah: And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that the L-rd brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.  Here “us” is in the first person plural.  We are a people, and have been for millenia.

We are a people that has undergone peaks and valleys.  We are a people that has experienced great achievements, but also has fallen into great disappointments and tragedy.  We are people with human frailties. Therefore the challenge to each of us.

As a result of living in an age of self-interest, biblical immorality comes automatically if we are not on guard.  The practical principles of Torah are neglected, if not forgotten. Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.  And teach them to your children and your grandchildren.

Self examination: Do I live circumspectly according to the Word of Hashem?  In all relationships: parent-child, spouse, public official, politician, editor, author, teacher, rabbi, ...  at all times ... in every place ... ? Am I always behaving as a priest, representing well Hashem to the nations, so they may be drawn to Him and to His Torah?

  • A person’s word is his or her bond.  It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.  Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of G-d that it was a mistake. 

Q: Can my word be always relied on to be true, factual and binding?  If I make a promise, do I keep that exact promise to the letter?

  • You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord. 

Q: Do I forgive and forget any slight?

  • Render justice.  These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates.  And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate—declares the Lord.

  • The Ten Words, the Ten Commandments - are not suggestions. 

Q: Am I guilty of any transgression of either of them, however slight?

  • Watch your mouth!  “Judaism is intensely aware of the power of speech and of the harm that can be done through speech.  The rabbis note that the universe itself was created through speech. Of the 43 sins enumerated in the Al Cheit confession recited on Yom Kippur, 11 are sins committed through speech.  The Talmud tells that the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that it must be kept hidden from view, behind two protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse.

  • Fake News, intentional.  Word #9 of the 10. You shall not testify falsely against your neighbor.  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  You shall not wrong one another, but you shall revere your G-d; for I am the L-rd your G-d.  One documented strategy that is taking place today: Demonize your political opponent by telling the public lies about them. > The press reports the lies as if they were true. > You use the press reports as validation that your lies are true.

Q: Do I condone news sources that are known to spew fake news?

  • Defamation, Lashon hara.  You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people, and you are not to act against the life of your neighbor; I am the Lord.  Cursed be he who strikes down his fellow countryman in secret.—And all the people shall say, Amen.  “The harm done by speech is even worse than the harm done by stealing or by cheating someone financially: money lost can be repaid, but the harm done by speech can never be repaired.  For this reason, some sources indicate that there is no forgiveness for lashon hara (disparaging speech).

Q: Do I ever speak derogatory statements about anyone, even if truthful?

  • Idolatry. Their idols are merely things of silver and gold, shaped by human hands.  They have mouths but cannot speak, and eyes but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear, and mouths but cannot breathe. ... And those who make idols are just like them, as are all who trust in them.  Similarly, Isaiah compares dead idols and the living G-d: To whom can you compare Me or declare Me similar?  To whom can you liken Me, so that we seem comparable?  Those who squander gold from the purse and weigh out silver on the balance.  They hire a metal worker to make it into a god, to which they bow down and prostrate themselves.  They must carry it on their backs and transport it; When they put it down, it stands, it does not budge from its place.  If they cry out to it, it does not answer; it cannot save them from their distress.  Clothes, jewelry, automobiles, homes cannot hear or speak, and stand where we place them.  If I desire anything more than Hashem with my time, money or affections, to the detriment of worship of Hashem, it may well be an idol, a god.  You shall have no other gods besides Me.

As a member of Jewish peoplehood, as one of the kingdom of priests and a holy nation, does my every action reflect favorably on my responsibilities to Hashem Who brought me out of the land of Egypt?  He gave me free will, freedom to do, but with that freedom, חֵרוּת, comes responsibility, אַחֲרָיוּת, as the words explain.  As Ettinger points out, the Hebrew spelling of “responsibility,” אַחֲרָיוּת, starts with the first letter of the alef bet, א, and ends with the last letter, ת, attesting to the comprehensive/complete – not partial – nature of responsibility and freedom.

Again, as a member of Jewish peoplehood, as one of the kingdom of priests and a holy nation, does my every action set an example so that, as a leader, as an ambassador, I can say to one and all, “Yes, I have freedom.  And, yes, I am also responsible?” אַחַרִי, “After me?” “Follow my standard?”

Eastern religions sometimes seem to have a monopoly on spirituality in the world today.  But Torah and Hashem have given Judaism greater depth in the spiritual realm. Our individual responsibility is to say so, in behavior and action.  From Mount Sinai we have been taking to the nations sacred gifts that are stupendous. We may be alive physically in our own land, but we still must be diligent to maintain our commitment to Torah and to Hashem.  Fulfilling our responsibility, one and all, will allow us to proclaim, Am Yisrael Chai!, the nation of Israel lives in the truest meaning of the clause.

Adonai redeemed us from Egypt and freed us from the house of bondage,” an awesome gift which we remember on this holiday.  The Torah He gave on Har Sinai revolutionized the behavior of mankind, as we exercised our responsibility to follow His instructions for life.  But preceding those was the gift of The Land. Then the L-rd appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.”  That gift of real estate did not come on a silver platter.  We were told that we must take it. You shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.

Our responsibility today is to accept The Land that Hashem gave us.  The deed to the real estate did not come with a bow on it, as Joshua learned by experience.  Just as the cliché "Anything in life worth having is worth working for" holds true, so must we follow the example of Joshua and fight with the naysaying politicians, anti-Semites and Jew-haters, wherever they may be.

Just as Joshua led the Pesach Seder at Gilgal before proceeding to immediately take The Land, so may we as a nation use this holiday as the springboard to complete Israeli sovereignty over Judea, Samaria and Emek Yarden.

The time is here for us to exercise our responsibility to sovereignly possess The Land He gave us.  May we find the koach to exercise all of our responsibilities as Jews.

Next year in Jerusalem!