Free For All

Passover brings Jews the world over together to sit with their families and friends for the seder. Our Scripture mandates that we “teach faithfully to our children” the story of Passover and its lessons of freedom from 400 years of slavery and harsh bondage in ancient Egypt. The Passover Haggadah includes the “Four Questions,” one from each kind of child — the Wise, the Wicked, the one who questions why he is there and the one who lacks the intellectual capacity to understand the meaning of the Festival of Freedom.

In the aftermath of the recent signing by President Barack Obama of historic health care legislation, many have seen parallels to the leadership of the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who steered Social Security and the New Deal to passage. In a historic speech to Congress on Jan. 6, 1941, just a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt vowed that the United States would always champion Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech and Religion, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.


It is striking how Roosevelt’s enunciation of essential freedoms rings true when applied to the issues of today.

* Freedom of Speech and Religion: Both of these freedoms are enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States. In almost a quarter millennium of American history, these cherished freedoms have served us in good stead. But they are also stretched to the limit by ill- tempered and bigoted people who hurl epithets at those who do not share their political or religious views. We tolerate but abhor the invectives of those who threw slurs at civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis and openly gay Rep. Barney Frank during the heated climax of health care debate. Why? Because the right to issue words and ideas (as opposed to the physical violence inflicted on Rep. Louise Slaughter’s office, and that of Rep. Eric Cantor, or the act of spitting upon Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, none of which are protected), unless they are intended to incite immediate violence, must be preserved to have an effective democracy.

* Freedom from Want: The health care passage, along with the previous landmark programs posited by Roosevelt and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, are examples of efforts to eliminate poverty, hunger and want in our nation. Truly, government cannot solve all of our nation’s problems and the role of the private and non-profit sectors is vitally important to our nation’s well-being — indeed, this health care legislation will provide up to 30 million new clients for private insurance companies. But when the needs of those who cannot effectively advocate for themselves are evident, it is essential that we act collectively to stand up for them.

* Freedom from Fear: In his 1933 first inaugural address, Roosevelt immortalized the words, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” He deployed his personal courage and commanding presence to dispel the very well-founded fears of the economic collapse, massive unemployment and the rise of extremist groups during the Great Depression. He introduced the major bulk of the New Deal during his first One Hundred Days in office; then on the heels of Pearl Harbor, the “Doctor Fix-it-Up of the Great Depression became the “Doctor Win-the-War” of the Second World War.

To be sure, we regret that Roosevelt did not do more to stop the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust, especially his failure to allow the many Jewish passengers aboard the German ship St. Louis to disembark in Cuba en route to the U.S. But FDR did make many efforts to increase the number of Jews admitted to the United States and other nations. And FDR’s leadership, along with that of Churchill, was absolutely essential to the defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and militaristic Japan.

In today’s world, we have more than a few threats to our basic freedoms both here and abroad. As we celebrate Passover and its message of Freedom, let us not only ask the Four Questions, but reaffirm our commitment to the vitality and endurance of the Four Freedoms so well articulated by Roosevelt.