Tuesday, Apr 13, 2021

The Freedom Conundrum

 

Imagine a road trip. The snow starts out light but is soon falling heavily, obscuring the highway. Visibility becomes so poor that, even with the windshield wipers working at full speed, drivers can scarcely see two feet in front of their faces.

The road winds through a mountainous region where signs of civilization are few and far between. Anxiety mounts as snow gusts around the crawling vehicles in great white waves. When a tiny rest area appears on the left, it seems prudent to swing off the highway and take refuge there for a while.

One by one, several cars inch into the snowed-over parking area. The passengers run from the warmth of their cars to the modest brick building. Inside they find a seating area from which they can watch the blizzard in sheltered safety.

They’re a motley crew. Their ages vary widely, as do their styles of dress. One of them, a man in a dark overcoat with a yarmulka and a short, silvering beard, sits slightly apart from the others, reading a book that he brought with him. The others chat in a desultory fashion until a garrulous, middle-aged woman calls out, “What’s that you’re reading there, Rabbi? It must be fascinating.”

Whether she really wants to know or is just put out at the way he is ignoring their conversation, the question prompts the rabbi to smile and close his book. “This is something I recently picked up in a bookstore. It’s about the upcoming Jewish holiday of Passover.” He holds up the book so the others can see its cover. The book is entitled “The Freedom Season.”

“What does freedom have to do with Passover?” asks an intense-looking young man in jeans and a brown corduroy jacket.

Before the rabbi can answer, a girl with long hair and a discontented expression bursts out, “Freedom! That’s exactly what I want. All my life I’ve been waiting to get out on my own. To see the world. To make my mark!”

“But…?” the garrulous woman prompts. It seemed clear to them all that a “but” is coming.

“But my parents say they can’t afford to send me away to continue my education. They say I’ll have to keep on living at home and go to a local college.” The young woman frowns mightily. “It’ll be years before I’m free to go where I want to go and do what I want to do!”

Around the circle, heads nodded sympathetically. Then a heavyset man in his thirties clears his throat. “I think all this talk about freedom is overrated. I like living at home with Mother. No need to pay so many bills. No need to make all the decisions. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar.”

“That’s right,” says the placid older woman beside him, patting his hand. “Are you sure you’re not too cold? Better button up, dear.”

“Mother Russia—she, too, takes care of her children,” intones a grizzled fellow with a thick, foreign accent. “That’s what the Communist dream is about. An umbrella to protect one and all. The government sees to it that everybody gets what they need. The government makes decisions and takes responsibility. Everybody lives in peace and security. Freedom?” He makes a dismissive gesture. “Bah!”

This pronouncement irks the person sitting next to him, a prosperous-looking man in a cashmere coat whose haircut looked both trendy and expensive. “Ridiculous!” he declares. “Big government ought to take a back seat. It just makes everything cumbersome and inefficient. People should be free to make their own decisions. To make their own way in life.”

“Give me liberty or give me death!” a woman in a pink parka says with a giggle. “From the American War of Independence, remember?”

Some of the others nod. The Russian glares. The girl who can’t wait to get away from home continues frowning. The rabbi looks thoughtful.

“Liberty? Freedom?” For the first time, a thuggish-looking man with narrow eyes and stubbled cheeks speaks up with a sneer. “I’ll tell you what freedom is. It’s when you can do what you want, because you’re stronger. Like, if I happened to have a gun in my pocket, I could just whip it out and point it at you guys. I could tie you up and rob you. I could do whatever I want to you. Because I don’t care about the rules. And because I can.”

Everyone looks nervously at the man’s hand, lest it betray a tendency to stray to his pocket. He grins contemptuously at their obvious fear.

“On the contrary,” a professorial-looking fellow remarks, pushing his rimless glasses higher with a bony forefinger. “Criminals are not really free at all. Once you break the law, you have the police after you. You become a fugitive, always looking over your shoulder, always afraid of being caught. And when you are caught, you’re looking at prison time. How free is that?”

The thuggish man does not look pleased with this comment. But before he can shoot back a retort, an artsy-looking woman with flowing hair and six earrings drawls, “You want to know what freedom is? I’ll tell you. My cousin Stanley inherited some money and decided that he’s never going to work again. Now he lives on a tiny island in the Caribbean. Sits on the beach all day, watching the waves with a pina colada in his hand. Nothing to do but drink and relax. No cares, no worries, nobody to tell him what to do. Now, that’s what I call free!”

The man in the cashmere coat says, “Granted, he’s free to do nothing. But is he free of his alcohol addiction? Is he free to contribute to the world? To be productive and creative? To build relationships and help shape society?” He shakes his head. “If you ask me, your cousin is just as much a prisoner as anyone else.”

“Nobody asked you, did they,” the artsy-looking woman mutters resentfully.

“What about you?” the young college girl says suddenly, addressing the man with the yarmulka. “What do you think freedom is about?”

The man thinks for a moment. “That’s a very big question. One that I don’t think I can answer in a few minutes. But I will tell you this: When G-d took the Jewish people out of Egypt, where they’d been forced to work as slaves for many years, He granted them freedom. The freedom to serve Him!”

“What kind of freedom is that?” the Russian scoffs.

“When you’re plugged into something eternal… into the only absolute Truth there is… then you don’t have to worry about anything that this world can throw at you. You’re free to make the most of yourself. And you do it while building a relationship with the Creator of Everything. The King of the whole universe!”

“But serving Him means following His rules, right?” asks the intense-looking young man who earlier asked about freedom and Passover.

“Exactly,” says the rabbi. “Following His rules provides a framework that helps us rise above our physical limitations and addictions and desires. It helps us achieve our maximum potential as human beings.” He leans forward, hands on his knees. “It’s that framework that gives us the freedom to do those things.”

“Look! The snow is easing up.” In the distance, they hear the rumble of a snowplow slowly making its way up the empty highway.

Within a short time, the road is clear enough for the travelers to get into their respective cars and resume their respective journeys. The intense-looking young man in the corduroy jacket finds his way to the rabbi’s side.

“Would—would you mind if I called you one day, if I have more questions?”

The rabbi smiles. “Certainly.” He writes down his number and hands it to the young man. “Safe travels.”

“Thank you.” The younger man stores the number carefully in his pocket. “And—have a happy Passover.”

“You, too.” The rabbi holds up the book he brought with him. “May it be the season of freedom for all of us.”

Somewhat to his own surprise, the young man whispers: “Amen.”

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