Passover: A festival of freedom, or liberty?

Passover: A festival of freedom, or liberty?

As a lawyer and writer, one of my favorite resources is Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms. I have had a copy on my desk, wherever I worked, since 1976. It helps me “nuance” my writings by helping me find the exact word to express the idea that I am trying to convey.

We are celebrating Pesach, the festival associated with freedom.

Freedom is an interesting concept. So too is liberty, a word used interchangeably with freedom. But there are differences.

The Dictionary’s entry under “freedom” states that freedom, liberty, and license are comparable. The entry notes that “freedom” has the widest application, and often applies when there is not only a total absence of restraint but release from the compulsion of necessity. In ordinary casual usage, it merely implies the absence of any awareness of being restrained.

On the other hand, “liberty” often carries one of two implications not associated with the use of “freedom.” The first implication is the power to choose, as distinguished from the state of being uninhibited. The second implication is deliverance or release from restraint. One of the examples given of the second implication is to set a slave at liberty.

This nuanced difference may explain the Founders’ use of the term “liberty,” as in the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Then there are Jefferson’s words from A Summary View of the Rights of British America: “The god who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.” I sang these words in high school glee club.

What did we get when we left Egypt, freedom or liberty? Using the Dictionary of Synonyms’ differentiation, we got liberty, not freedom. There was not a total absence of restraint, nor a release from compulsion of necessity. Israel entered into a covenant with God at Mt. Sinai whereby the Lord made Israel His own people in return for Israel following His commandments.

The Ten Commandments were written by the hand of God. “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets.” (Exodus 32:16)

The Mishna gives us instruction on how to read this sentence in Hebrew. In Pirkei Avot 6:2, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi instructs, “read not ‘engraved’ (harut) but ‘liberty’ (herut) — for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the study of Torah.”

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is inscribed with the phrase “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” from Leviticus 25:10, which is part of the description of the jubilee year. The Hebrew word used here is dror, which alternately means freedom or liberty.

Being a quasi-thesaurus, the Dictionary also has analogous words (near synonyms), as well as antonyms and contrasted words: bondage vs. freedom, servitude vs. slavery, restraint vs. liberty. There are a number of contrasted words, including constraint, compulsion, duress, and coercion.

In this grouping, the main entry is servitude, which along with slavery and bondage refers to being subjugated to a master. Servitude refers to the state of a person who is bound to obey the will of a master or sovereign, and is lacking the freedom to determine his/her own acts, laws, and living conditions. Slavery implies subjugation to an owner who may treat the person as property, while bondage refers to being bound to the land like a serf. It also applies when there is no hope for escape except by breaking one’s chains.

Deuteronomy 15:15 enjoins us to “remember you were a slave in Egypt,” using the Hebrew word eved which can mean slave, bondsman, or serf, connoting both slavery and bondage.

We would like to think the natural progression is from servitude to liberty, but sometimes that is not the case. Consider one of the mottos of Oceania in Orwell’s 1984, “Freedom Is Slavery.” Can we give so much power to a sovereign that, while we believe we are free, it is only an illusion of freedom or liberty; the reality being that we are slaves, avadim, who think we have liberties only because the sovereign tells us we do?

That was part of Orwell’s message. It also was Frederick von Hayek’s message in The Road to Serfdom.

Almost every day there seems to be some new example of government encroachment on individual liberties. Some of the best examples come from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s various crusades to save New Yorkers from what he, in his superior wisdom, believes, nay knows, is in our best interest. Others come from Washington where elected representatives and bureaucrats believe there isn’t a problem or behavior which cannot be solved by a law or regulation. Because of such thinking, we are trending toward the dystopian world portrayed in The Demolition Man.

Servitude, slavery, and bondage, along with Pharaohs, come in many forms, not all of which are immediately recognizable.

So when we say at the seder, “Next year, may we be free men,” pause to contemplate, given current trends, whether we will.

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