Freedom’s true meaning can only be found through Torah truths

BY RABBI JOSEF A. DAVIDSON

What is freedom? Is it the right to do whatever one wants, whenever one wants without regard to time, place, context and other people/creatures or the environment? Is there no boundary placed on freedom? The late Janis Joplin sang a song that proclaimed, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Is that how freedom is to be perceived?

The Israelites have been freed from bondage. The last vestiges of Egyptian control over their lives were drowned in the Sea of Reeds with Pharaoh’s hosts. “What now?” is the question. What are the Israelites to do with their newly won freedom?

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In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Israelites’ freedom is circumscribed through God’s love for them. As they are encamped at the base of Mount Sinai, they are to experience God’s love through the Revelation, the Giving of the Torah. No longer will the Israelites serve human masters. From this point on they will serve only God, Who, in turn, will provide them with the necessities of life, food, water, shelter, a means of defense against their enemies, and give them a place of their own in the Promised Land. At Mount Sinai the Israelites and God become true partners, each with rights and obligations that are mutual and complementary.

As part of this Revelation, the Israelites hear Asseret Hadibrot, the Ten Sayings, more commonly known as the Ten Commandments. These outline the relationships that they are to have with God and with their fellow human beings. If they are to create a just and holy society, they must live within boundaries. Their actions must be appropriate for the context in which they find themselves. To do or say whatever one wants, whenever one wants without regard for context, other people, other creatures or the environment is not freedom at all — it is simply chaos. God ordered chaos in creating the universe. Human beings are to order the chaos that remains through their agreement to live within the boundaries of law and of obligations to God and to God’s creation.

A loving parent would not say to his/her child, “Do whatever you wish.” A loving parent would provide the security and safety of boundaries within which the child has the freedom to choose. As the child matures these boundaries are widened, and the child continues to have freedom to move within the boundaries established. When that child is an adult, s/he will then have the capability of securing his/her own boundaries and providing the same for his/her offspring as well. So, too, does a loving God provide boundaries within which we can have the freedom of choice. That is the lesson of the Revelation. The experience of Mount Sinai will prove to be the climactic one for the entire Torah narrative. It is the goal towards which the Torah has been aiming since it was begun anew last autumn, and it will become the point of departure for the rest of the parshiyot which we will read throughout the rest of the year.

How we live our lives matters — not only to ourselves, our immediate families and to those around us, but to God as well. The root meaning of the word, Torah, does not mean “law.” It means “instruction.” The Torah is the gentle instruction manual for life, the conditions of the Covenant which our ancestors made at Mount Sinai and which Jews have reaffirmed in each generation since that time. As the author of Proverbs confirms, “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.” (Proverbs 3:18)

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson provided this week’s Torah Portion.