On 20th March, Rabbi Sacks delivered a pre-Pesach shiur to students at University College London. The shiur focussed on the concept of freedom and why its meaning and importance has been misunderstood over so many generations. To download the accompanying mekorot (source) sheet, please click here.
Rabbi Sacks: Well, Nathaniel, Natan, and my very good friends, thank you very much for that awe-inspiring introduction and prepare to be disappointed. But it’s great to be here. And I think actually we should pay tribute to UCL, because I think it was the first place in Britain where Jews could get degrees. Absolutely extraordinary thing, but it took until 1828, I think. 182? Is that right? 26. Oh, sorry. It took King’s until 1828 to … That rival down the road.
Anyway, it’s great to be with you to wish you all a Chag Kasher V’Sameach. To thank you all for being here, and for standing up for Jewish life on campus. I’m very loath to add this little footnote, Nathaniel, to your introduction, but since it’s the time for it I may as well say it. Because it was in 2005 that Her Majesty was kind enough to actually make me a Sir. And the Buckingham Palace is incredibly sensitive to diplomatic issues. And I’m sure you know … You better be warned, because if you ever get to be a knight one day you may need to know this, that when the Queen or whoever it is comes to lay the sword on your shoulder, you have to kneel.
Now, you will know from Purim that Jews, like Mordechai, we don’t kneel before anyone except Hashem. And this therefore presented a serious diplomatic issue in Buckingham Palace as to what to do, because you have to kneel, but I had to explain to them, “I can’t kneel”. And so they came up with this thing… I’m sure they’ve still got it… It’s like a thing like this on wheels. So they wheeled out this little railing that I could lean on and incline 10 to 15 degrees away from the perpendicular, thus inclining towards Her Majesty without actually kneeling.
And when the great event came, they did actually wheel in this thing and I did incline and she did rest her sword on my shoulder, but she did say, in an undertone to Prince Phillip, “Tell me, why is this knight different?”
Anyway, enough with the badinage. You wanted me to speak about the meaning of freedom and how it relates to Pesach. So what I want to do, if I may, is share with you what I think is a fascinating intellectual journey into the Jewish concept of freedom, which turns out to be quite a profound little journey of the mind that I want to share with you.
Let me just begin at the beginning because we’ve got to begin somewhere. And I want to begin with this concept of what is the Jewish way of telling a story. On Pesach we tell the story of our people. Is there a Jewish way of telling a story? The short answer is, I think there is. And it’s very interesting. Anyone know, I mean, look at all the sad and tragic things that have happened to our nation. From exile and slavery in Egypt all the way through to the Holocaust and beyond. Lots and lots of bad things happened. What is the Hebrew word for tragedy? Do we have any Israelis here? What is the Hebraic word for tragedy?
Audience member: Tragedia
Rabbi Sacks: Exactly. Tragedia is the Hebrew word for tragedy. Why? Because there’s no Hebrew word for tragedy. There is none. Which is extraordinary, considering all the tough stuff that happened to us. We have words for bad things that happen, we have asoun, which means catastrophe. We have churban, which means destruction. But tragedy, in that technical Greek sense of Aeschylus and Sophocles, we don’t have a word for that. And there is a reason for that. Because tragedy is not the Jewish way of telling a story. Tragedy has to do with a Greek idea that somehow or other some flaw in the hero’s character will lead inevitably to some bad outcome. And that is what the Greeks call moira or ananke: inexorable, implacable, blind fate. You can’t defeat fate. If you have this flaw of character, bad things are going to happen, especially if your name is Oedipus, but one way or another, bad things are going to happen. Jews didn’t have a word for tragedy in that Greek sense despite all the tragic things that happened to them. And there’s a reason for that. And the reason is because there’s a Jewish way of telling the story and do you have source One? Here it is, it’s a Mishnah, (can you see it?) it says “Matchil beganut umesayim beshevach”.
The Jewish way of telling the story, is how we do it in the Haggadah, is to begin with the bad news and end with the good. So we begin with the bad news, exile, slavery, so on and so forth, but the end is, we went free in the end. So the Jewish way of telling the story is always a story of hope. Are you with me? Because all the bad at the beginning, we never end the story until we have a positive note. However, you will see in this source, I’m not going to take you through every single source here because it will take too long, but if you have a look at the source, you’ll see there are two teachers, Rav and Shmuel, from the third century, who disagreed as to how to tell the story of Pesach. What’s the bad news and what’s the good news? Rav says, in source 1, can you see this? [Hebrew: Mitchila ovdei ovadot galulim hayu avoteinu]. “Originally our ancestors were idolaters but now God has drawn us close to Him. And Shmuel says [Hebrew: Avadim Hayinu] “We were slaves in Egypt and God brought us out”. Which do we do actually? Exactly! [inaudible 00:11:08].
We do both, that is the ‘Jewish way of stopping two Rabbis from arguing’, but it never works, but never mind. So we begin by saying immediately after we recite Ma Nishtana [on Seder night], we begin by saying “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and then God took us out”. And then at the end of all that [Hebrew] initially, our ancestors were idolaters, Terach was the father of Abraham, and he served other Gods, etc. etc.
Okay. So we have these two views, Rav and Shmuel, as to how to tell the story on Pesach. However, one of them is very clear. Which is the obvious? Which one makes more sense to you?
Shmuel makes obvious sense. We were slaves to Pharaoh and God took us out, that’s the story of Pesach: exile, enslavement, exodus. Makes sense.
However, if you have a careful look at Source 5 in English, it’s easy. The quote that Rav brings, (You see, it’s about the third line down in the English, yeah?) This is Joshua making a speech at the end of his life. It’s right in the last chapter of the book of Joshua, says “‘Long ago your forefathers, including Terach the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the River and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. Etc etc . . .” Understand, according to Rav, the story of the exodus begins even before Abraham, and it ends even after Moses. Because this is in the days of Joshua and his successor. It’s a huge panoramic story and once more, it’s not a story of slavery and freedom, it’s a story of idolatry and then monotheism.
So what on earth is Rav telling us? Why does Rav say what he says? I just want you to ponder that question because it’s an important question. And now let me ask you the second obvious question? What is the Hebrew word for freedom?
Audience member: Cherut
Rabbi Sacks: Does everyone agree? Cherut is the Hebrew word for freedom. And what’s the name we give to Pesach? “Zman Cheruteinu”! The festival of our freedom! And how do we begin? “Ha lachma anya: This is the bread of affliction, today we are slaves but next year we will be free.” Okay? The Hebrew for freedom is cherut. Wrong. The word cherut does not appear even once in the whole of Tanach. In the whole of the Hebrew Bible, it doesn’t appear. This is what I want us to understand. How come post-Biblical Judaism invented a new word for freedom that doesn’t exist in the whole of the Biblical literature? Anyone know what the word “charut” means? It’s the only time this root [chet-raish-taf] appears in the whole of Tanach. Do you remember? Does anyone know where charut appears in the Bible?
Audience Member: Charut al ha’luchot?
Rabbi Sacks: Charut al ha’luchot: The first set of tablets that Moses gave us. Well Moses was as good with tablets as I am with washing up. As you know, he dropped it, [laughter] never upgraded to the dishwasher. The Torah says about these first luchot, [Hebrew] the tablets were the word of God, the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. The word charut is used and this is the only time this word appears in the whole of the Tenach and it’s engraved. Right? There is the word chered with a det instead of a taf. Does anyone know where that appears in the Bible? Anyone? In chet ha’egel [the story of the Golden Calf]. Aaron took the gold and carved it using a chered, an engraving tool. It is possible, you remember when Moses started bringing the plagues and all the Egyptian magicians started trying to do the same. (What schlimeels!) Oh you can turn water into blood? So can we! If they can turn the blood back into water, then that would have been sensible. What is the Hebrew word for those magicians? Chartumei Mitzrayim! And it very well may be that the word chartumei comes from the same Hebrew root. They were the people who could engrave hieroglyphics and read those engravings.
So it turns out that the word charut / cherut doesn’t appear in Tanach at all! But a similar appears meaning to engrave. Okay? Now what does that have to do with freedom? Tell me, anyone know what the word is that the Bible uses for freedom? (The same word appears in Hatikva (Israel’s national anthem) liyot am…?
Rabbi Sacks: Chofshi, right! So have a look in the source, where are we? Bottom of the page. When Moses comes to gives the detailed laws of the Ten Commandments., obviously the first thing he’s going to talk about is how do you treat slaves? We’ve been slaves, how do we treat slaves? And the Torah says [Hebrew source] if you have a slave then he should serve you for six years in the seventh he shall go out free. Alright? So the Biblical Hebrew word for freedom is not cherut it’s chofshi.
And that is exactly what Naftali Herz Imber wrote in the Hatikvah. “Liyot am chofshi be’artzenu”. Now tell me, why did the Rabbi’s not call Pesach, “zman chofshenu”? When a slave goes free, what does that freedom consist of? There’s no need to order him about, he can do what he likes. In fact, chafesh and chafetz probably mean similar. Lachafotz means to want to do something. So if you’re chofet, meaning you have chofesh, you have freedom to do whatever [Hebrew].
So, that is what a slave gets, there is no-one to order him about, and he can do whatever he likes. Let me ask you a question. Is a society in which everyone can do what they like a free society? What do you think?
Rabbi Sacks: A balagan – a mess. Okay, so, you understand – when the Talmud uses the word chofesh, it’s talking about individual freedom. It’s talking about the freedom a slave gets when he goes out but it’s not talking about a free society. To have a free society there has to be some basic order. The Talmud describes at the end of the book of Judges “bayamim hahen…” In those days there was no king in Israel, there was no national government in Israel, everyone was free to do whatever they liked. That was a condition of chaos. And I’m convinced that Chaos Theory was to describe Jewish life actually. This is tohu ve’vohu But chofesh speaks of individual freedom, not of collective freedom. So what do you need for collective freedom?
Rabbi Sacks: Laws! That is exactly why Pesach is followed by Shavuot. As part of their freedom, there had to receive the law. Because without that, there’s going to be chaos instead of a free society. Now when you and I read the story of the giving of the law, I read that as a pretty free offer, yes? Look, before God reveals Himself, the Ten Commandments you’ll read in Exodus, Chapter 20. Exodus Chapter 19, God says to Moses “Go and tell the people, this is My offer. You have seen how I brought you out on eagles wings and drawn you close to Me, and now if you wish, and accept, you will be as to Me a segulah mikol ha’amim, a very special, treasured people to Me. You will be [Hebrew] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” And he tells Moses, “See if they agree!” And the text says the people say (yachdav) all together, “Whatever God says, we will do.”
And again, after the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments and the detailed legislation, look at Exodus 24 “and again Moses repeats the laws and they say (b’kol echad) with one voice “Whatever God says, we’ll do.” and a third time, ‘Whatever God says, na’aseh v’nishma, “we will do, and we will obey.” So to me, that sounds like a pretty free acceptance of the law. Does anyone know the Rabbinical commentary on Mount Sinai? Do you remember the story? The Rabbi says (this is a gemara in Shabbat) that acceptance of the law by the Israelites was completely free. And this is how God proposed the deal. He lifted up Mount Sinai – suspended it over the Israelites and said “if you agree and accept the law, fine, if not whoops, there goes the mountain and this will be your burial place.” And even the Rabbi said “what kind of freedom is that?”
Now, to square the Biblical view of what happened and the Rabbinical view of what happened, you have to work out the following. God did not impose the law on the Israelites but were they really free to refuse? Where were they? They were in the middle of the desert and Waze had not yet been invented. No google maps, no homeland, no security, they’re entirely dependent on God and His pillar of cloud and pillar of fire and protecting them. How free were they at the time to say “Goodbye God, it’s been nice knowing you, thanks for getting us out of Egypt but from here on, we’re on our own.”
So the Rabbi says that was not a real free acceptance of the law. Moses renews the covenant. That’s what the book of Devarim is about. Forty years on, with the next generation, and he renews the covenant, were they free when they accepted it at Sinai? The answer is still not quite, because they hadn’t yet crossed the Jordan, they hadn’t yet entered the land, they hadn’t yet conquered the land. They didn’t really know it was theirs. They weren’t entirely free. They needed God’s help and they couldn’t really say no. What was the first moment that they could have accepted the covenant and been absolutely free, given the choice? What was the first moment? What has to happen first? They had to cross the Jordan, they had to enter the land, they have to win their battles. Are they there? When is the first moment they are free to actually say “Yea or nay?” The answer is after the conquest of the land. After the conclusion of Joshua’s career as a leader. And this text, that Rav quotes, is from the last chapter of the book of Joshua.
And I want you to look at it very carefully because it’s a really, really extraordinary passage. When we go back to this, Source 5, yeah. Joshua reminds the people of this long journey they’ve taken since the days of Terach, the father of Abraham, and long ago your fathers worshipped other gods … until Abraham and so on and so forth. And now, can you see the next paragraph, “Now fear the Lord,” can you see that? Now fear the Lord, and serve Him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites…”
In other words, you’re free to choose. Either follow Hashem or you can follow the that Terach worshipped, or the gods of the Amorites. Totally free choice. What did the people say? Do you see it in the next paragraph? Then the people answered “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods, It was the Lord our God who brought us out of Egypt from the land of slavery, etc. etc. We too will serve the Lord for He is our God.” What does Joshua say? Joshua says to the people, Forget it, you won’t be able to serve the Lord. “He’s a holy God, He’s a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, He will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after He has been good to you.” It’s tough being a Jew. Forget it, you know, there are easier options out there. But the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord.” Then Joshua said, ” You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.”
I never read anything more discouraging in my life. “Do you want to serve the Lord? No forget it. It’s a hard option. You do? No. Please, don’t.” And he tells them “You’re free to go.’ And they say “No we will serve the Lord.” And he tells them again, and again and again. And for Rav, this was the first moment of freedom. The first moment where they had the law but they accepted it voluntarily because they could have walked. They had the land, the won the victory, they didn’t need God anymore. They could have walked but they said no. That, for Rav, is when freedom begins. The story that began even before the birth of Abraham when idolatry was used to justify hierarchical societies in which some were rulers and others were slaves, that story only ends, not in the days of Moses but when the Israelites finally achieve their own land, and God has fulfilled every promise He gave them and now Joshua says, “Now, do you really want to serve the Lord?” And gave them every chance to walk and they say “No, we want to serve the Lord.” So that is why Rav is giving this vast perspective
But let me ask you a simple question when it comes to obeying the law, are we really free to obey the law? I mean, you know… do you see this issue? I mean … in the end, without freedom we have no law but we didn’t actually opt to make the law. So what does freedom exist in? Now, suppose that you really understand why the law is as it is. Because you took … how many people studying law this room? I cannot believe there is only one Jewish lawyer here [laughter] two Jewish lawyers?! … This is what call an all-time low! I only became a Rabbi, not to be included as a lawyer. [laughter] Now, if you understand the story behind the law, and if you understand the law itself because you are a lawyer, then there is an alignment between what the law is and what you know it has to be. It’s not something externally imposed on you, but it’s something that flows from your understanding of the history of what brought us here and why, given that history, the law has to be the way it is. Are you with me?
Now, I want you to just explain to me … let’s get back to this word charut, yes? Which means “engraved.” There are two ways you can make an inscription; you can write it with ink on paper or parchment or you can engrave it in stone. What’s the difference between those two things?
Audience member: One fades.
Rabbi Sacks: Pardon?
Audience: One fades away.
Rabbi Sacks: One of them fades, the ink is different to the parchment. It’s something added to it, it’s on the surface which means it can be rubbed out. Whereas an inscription that is engraved is not an additional imposition of a new material from the outside, it is of the stone itself and it’s engraved into the stone so it can’t be rubbed off. And engravings last much longer than any writing under normal circumstances. Engraving doesn’t add anything external, it becomes something internal to the stone. And that is what the Rabbis understood as the supreme metaphor for the Jewish relationship to freedom under the law. If we understand why the Torah is as it is, why it has those laws about releasing slaves, (don’t forget slavery wasn’t abolished, in America, until 1865 though a Civil War). It takes a lot of time to abolish slavery, but almost all the laws in the Torah for which a reason is given, the reason is “because I brought you out of Egypt”.
So you understand why the law is as it is. And you understand that out of your own experience and therefore the law is not something alien to you. It is something that is engraved in you, within your heart, within your mind, and that was the metaphor that led the Rabbis to coin this new word for freedom. If you have a look at the Source 13. Ve’omar, says the Mishnah in Mesechet Avot… [Hebrew] that’s the quote from Exodus. The tablets were the Word of God and the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. Don’t call it engraved, call it freedom. [Hebrew] Because the only real freed human being is one who studies Torah. Meaning, somebody who understands the law and has made the law part of his own or her own self. Because you’ve internalised it, because you can see the history behind it, because you can see the logic behind it. The people who experience slavery should never create a society in which those bad things can happen again.
Once that was engraved on you, and within you, then your will and the law are one and you’re obeying the law but you are obeying it freely.
Now there is a history in this. And I want you to just have a look here in Jeremiah chapter 31. If you look at Source 15, it’s a very, very interesting and important passage. The reason that Jews don’t read this passage very much is because it’s actually a key text in mainstream Christianity so Jews kind of keep away from it. Anyone knows what the New Testament is in Hebrew? Brit Chadasha Exactly. This – There’s only one place in the whole of Tanach where that phrase occurs and it occurs here. So we’re going to read this. Can you see this, read it in Hebrew or in English. “I will make a new covenant with Israel.” What is it? “It won’t be like the covenant I made with them in Egypt when I had to schlep them out! I had to schlep them out, they didn’t want to leave and every time I gave them the law, they broke it. It won’t be like that… This will be the covenant that I will make with Israel…I will give my Torah within the law, in their minds, in their souls, And I will inscribe it on their hearts… and then I will be their God and they will be My people in total freedom.” etc. etc.
That is what Jeremiah is saying. That the whole time the Israelites kept the Torah because God gave it, and it’s outside, all that led to bad stuff. Led to rebellions, idolatry, falling by the wayside. People didn’t feel they were free within in the Jewish law. Jeremiah said the time will come when Jews will have a completely new relationship to their covenant with God, because they will study the law so much and so deeply that it will be inscribed on their hearts, engraved in their personalities and it will therefore fulfill the law because they’ll know this is going to create a free society. Are you with me? The end result was, Jeremiah of course was a prophet, when does he live? Yeah, a long time ago. He lived in the sixth century. He foresaw the Babylonian conquest, destruction of Jerusalem, Babylonian exile. Who renewed Jewish life after the Babylonian exile?
Audience: Ezra –
Rabbi Sacks: Ezra and Nehemiah, did pretty much like LSJS, UJS, and Limmud, a big education seminar, see Chapters 8 and 9 of Nehemiah, and that’s when Judaism evolved from being a religion based on kings and priests and power and became the religion we know it to be, based on synagogues and schools and shuls. An education-based religion, where the first thing we have to learn is “What is the law and why is the law?” And therefore it’s not something alien to us, it’s something inscribed within us. And it’s very interesting that in the first century, Josephus says the following: Can you see Source 16, he’s not referring to any of this Rabbinical stuff, but he says “Should any one of our nation, be asked about our laws, he can repeat them as readily as his own name. The result of our thorough education in our laws from the very dawn of intelligence instead they are as it were engraved on our soul.”
Now, look at this. This is an extraordinary concept that reaches its final fruition with the Rabbis in the third century, in other words sixteen centuries after the days of Moses, after this long historical experience of Jews, you know, semi-keeping, and then lapsing and then losing and being sent to exile and finally understanding what Moses was saying right at the beginning. Which is number one, every year, tell the story. So you never forget who you are, where you came from and what battles you had to fight along the way. Number two, (Veshinantam lefanecha) instruct your children. Whether they chacham, rasha, tam, me-shein yode’a lishol it doesn’t matter which of the four kids they are, educate the children so that those laws will be engraved on their souls and then you will have the law governed liberty. i.e the order that comes from law, but the freedom that comes from knowing this law, given who we are and where we’re coming from had to be like this because we had to create – not a society of slavery but a society of freedom. Are you with me?
Now this is the most radical concept of freedom I know. If you are to read the famous essay that was delivered in 1957, Isaiah Berlin’s … Two Concepts of Liberty. Negative liberty, positive liberty, the negative liberty you will understand is chofesh. You know, he said, Isiah, he asked me, four days before his death, to officiate at his funeral. I tried to call him, and say “cheer up!” [laughter] Four days later, he died. But I said at his levaya [funeral] I actually said, when he was buried at Oxford, at the funeral, Isaiah Berlin’s work was a sustained commentary to the book of Exodus. Which it is. But chofesh was what Isaiah Berlin calls negative liberty. But he never developed a theory of positive liberty. Because he didn’t like positive liberty which he associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Rousseau’s famous remarks in the Social Contract… which was not the kind of liberty that Berlin was interested in.
So, what the Torah is telling us, is to have a free society, there must be some rule of law. But that law must be something you identify law because you know it’s freeing your people, you know what they endured and you know therefore why the law is the antidote to that negative experience of exile and enslavement. In other words, freedom doesn’t come easily. We take it for granted and we shouldn’t. Great civilisations have known freedom and they’ve declined and they have fallen and they have lost their freedom because they took freedom for granted. The greatest civilisation – I haven’t watched the new television series, have you watched it? Simon Schama, Mary Beard, what’s it called ‘Civilisations’? But you know what civilisations end up as? You know ruins of ancient buildings. So buildings last but the civilisation doesn’t. The freedom was won but it gets lost.
The Torah gives us a formula for never ever losing freedom. Number one, never forget your people’s story, number two, never forget to hand it on to your children, number three, educate yourself and your children so you know that it’s not something imposed on you by some arbitrary, tyrannical deity but it emerges out of the bigger experience of the cause. So that however bad the beginning of the story was, the ending is a law-governing liberty, a free world. Freedom. Speech went nuts, you know, you have to watch the clock very carefully.
So there we go, let me summarise by saying this – people thought during the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, they’d get freedom. Then the French Revolution was followed by the Reign of Terror. Which meant revolutionists themselves, lost their lives. The Russian Revolution, instead of inaugurating an era of freedom, introduced first Leninists then Stalinists tyranny and totalitarianism and maybe ten million people lost their lives as a result. China under Mao, all the rest of it… Revolutionary freedom begins with dreams but the dreams end and reality brings new issues to the people’s liberty.
The Torah offers us a tough approach to freedom. What Emanuelle Levitas called difficile liberte. You know, freedom is hard work. Sorry, Pesach is hard work, if you do Pesach-cleaning, and it’s a good reminder that freedom is hard work. It’s the work of memory, of telling the story, and understanding the law, and that is why there are so many Jewish lawyers because we are the only people that expects every single one of its children to become constitutional lawyers. That’s what Torah education is all about. And that is why a free society means we have constant need to work for it, constant need to protect it, and it is all of our responsibility. It is not something you delegate to governments because the second you delegate freedom to governments you lose it. Because they, in the end, tend to encroach on it more and more. And invariable freedom becomes less and less.
That is why some of the freedom. Everyone expected us [inaudible]… in Spring 2011 to inaugurate a new era of freedom in the Middle East, instead of which we have this widening chaos of Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and Somalia and Libya and all the rest of it. You’ve seen so many of the African countries who given democratic constitutions at the end of the age of imperialism, but which have descended into chaos and tyranny. Freedom is really hard work but somehow or other, over 4,000 years, Jews never lost that love of freedom and their commitment to it, as Heinrich Heine said, “ever since the exodus, freedom has spoken in a Hebrew accent”, which is a nice way of putting it. And indeed it wasn’t we alone, who were inspired by the story of the exodus. Because that was the inspiration of the Puritans of the English Revolution of 1640’s, it’s what inspired the people to sail off to America, in the Mayflower in 1620. The Arbella in 1630 when John Winthrop is talking aboard the Arbella about this new promised land, he’s quoting from Moses renewing the Covenant in Devarim Chapter 30. The whole of American history was built, African American “Go down to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go.” African civil rights movement was based on the exodus. That’s what Martin Luther King is quoting in his great “I Have a Dream” speech. And that is how the Jewish story has inspired some of the great movements for freedom in the world
If I can sum it up with one very neat little story. My favourite Rabbi of all time is called Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditcher, the Berditchiver Rav. The Berditchiver Rav is my favourite Rabbi because he always found good things to say about Jews. Now this this not a Rabbinical habit, you know The Berditchiver is famous for his stories, he’s walking in the market-place in Berditcher on Shabbos and there is a member of his community in public smoking a cigarette. So the Berditchiver Rav goes up to him and says “Lovely, beautiful Jew, you must have forgotten it’s Shabbos today!” He says, “No, I know it’s Shabbos!’. So he says “Beautiful neshama, you must have forgotten that on Shabbos, you can’t smoke cigarettes.” He says, “No, I know you can’t smoke cigarettes.” So he says, “Beautiful Jew, you… must have so much on your mind that you really didn’t realise that you took out a cigarette and lit it and started smoking, you didn’t know what you were doing, right?” and the Jew says, “No, I knew exactly what I was doing.” So the Berditchiver Rav turns his eyes to the heavens and says “Ribbono She-Olam, where will you find a people like this, in the world? Given every chance to tell a lie, he still didn’t!”
So the Berditchiver Rav said as follows: (He lived in Tzarist Russia, and) he said “the Tzar in Russia has an army, he has a police force, he has secret police, and yet you can go into any house in Russia and find illicit alcohol that’s been smuggled in. The Almighty has no army, He has no police, He has no secret police, and yet you can go inside any Jewish home at Pesach and you won’t find one of crumb of chametz.” That is freedom that comes from voluntary acceptance of the law. That is the kind of freedom that hard work though it is, is absolutely invulnerable, and will never die and will never be conquered. That is the kind of freedom to which we are called as Jews and which we recall ourselves every Pesach, let us use that freedom first to say I’m proud and tall as Jews, and second to work for the freedom and justice of all.
Bimhera, b’yamenu. Amen.