Ki Tavo: The Highest Freedom

There are three ideas of freedom that harmonize in the spirit. All are found at various moments in our personal stories. The first is the song of freedom’s future, sung in the hearts of those yearning to be free. The second is the song of liberation, marching towards revolution. The third is the song of covenant, binding us together to assure freedom for all. All of these songs are playing out today in America as we continue to struggle with COVID and how to deal with a society at odds with itself about the resurgent Delta variant. The American ideal is built on freedom. Whether it’s the price of tea, the emancipation of slaves, or the liberation of oppression, the Union has always aspired (never perfectly and often with grave errors) to expand freedom. Today, it seems however, that these songs, sung beautifully as solos, are discordant melodies that threaten to tear our nation apart.  

The first song of freedom is sung often in the tears of the broken hearted. In fits and starts, freedom begins as a crushed dream or a detained prophecy. I think of Olaudah Equiano, author of the very first slave narrative, weeping on the deck watching his master, Captain Pascal, betray the promise of manumission and selling his ship, including its slave, to a new owner. As the captain and his officers disembark in a rowboat and push off, Equiano’s dreams for freedom fade. I think of the Israelites, who after hundreds of years of slavery, finally dreamed of freedom, only to have to wait another forty years for Moses to return. (Exodus 2:23) I think of my family who came to America because they wanted to run from violent oppression. Like many who came here from somewhere else, our family has horrific stories of antisemitism. America was a promise for a different life. But it took many years and failed attempts before arriving on our shores. The resilience of freedom’s first song is the hope for a better future for ourselves and our family. Freedom as a dream is, in essence, a figment – it cannot endure, for it is only as real as our aspirations. 

Freedom’s second song breaks chains. In this form, it takes dreams and makes them into realities through the many struggles and flights of the spirit. The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin called this type of liberty “negative” in the sense that freedom negates the coercion one person can place upon another. It brings to mind Ghandi’s famous “Quit India” speech where he calls upon each person, “to be  his [or her] own master.” In the Torah, God, through Moses, famously demands that Pharoah let the Israelites go (Exodus 5:1) and to “proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 25:10) This form of freedom is as incomplete and unsustainable as the first. The sheer liberty of negative freedom can only endure as long as our rage does. I was sitting once with one of my grandmothers and she said to me, “Ya know boychik, it’s not just about what our family ran from, it’s what our family ran to that matters.” Once you cast off the yoke of oppression, the revolutionary spirit must fade if we are to endure. 

Freedom’s third and highest song seeks to build rather than break. It tries to answer the question, “How are we to live together?” The answer to that question is found in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. As Moses is entering the last hours of his life, he dreams of a time when the Israelites have fully cast off the fetters of slavery and have established themselves in the land. He envisions the farmer, upon finding success, coming to the Temple to bring a sacrifice. The land owner, free in his or her own land, comes with a basket of first-fruits and recites the following passage: 

“My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. …God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And I now bring the first-fruits of the soil which You, O, YHVH, have given me. … I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as You commanded me.” (Deuteronomy 5-13

At the moment of greatest exultation, those with greatest privilege declare their solidarity with those who have the least privilege. Here the Torah recalls the common story of father Jacob, the dreams of the Israelite slaves and their liberation. What Moses adds in this declaration and what is its most powerful addition is that liberty for a Jew is not simply from oppression, but freedom to take care of the vulnerable. In its highest form, the freedom we enjoy is not to break shackles, but to take care of each other.  

The midrash understands that when the Israelites received the Torah, they did so understanding what others could not. According to Midrash, other nations rejected the Torah because it constrained their freedom too much. Israel, on the other hand, understood that freedom is at its highest when it creates mutual responsibility. (Sifre Deuteronomy 343:6)  

Freedom is care.  Freedom is responsibility.  Freedom is covenant. 

This form of freedom endures because it binds us together in a  common project for the common future. As Jews, we understand the dreaming for freedom and the price we pay to achieve it. The passage from this week’s Torah portion is at the heart of the Passover seder, the night we celebrate our freedom. It’s at the same meal where we exalt God for taking us out of Egypt with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand that we make space for the poor at our tables and open our doors and sing for the final liberation of all. If we are to heal both physically and spiritually, we must not only free ourselves from our animus towards each other but make space for each other, and remember that true freedom ensures the mutual blessings of health and prosperity.  

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova.

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