When Lindy asked me to write an opinion piece linked to a theme of Pesach, it seemed obvious to me to write about what I consider its central theme — freedom. But when I sat down to write what I thought would be an easy piece, I realised this apparently simple word is deceptively multifaceted and layered with meanings.
We all hear it bandied about in so many different contexts — economic freedom, political freedom, freedom of speech, Freedom Charter, freedom fighters, to name a few. But what does it mean? What is the essence of freedom?
As a wordsmith, my first port of call is always the dictionary. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘freedom’ as, firstly, the ‘power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants’ and, secondly, ‘the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved’.
It is primarily the second meaning of freedom that we read about and celebrate in the Haggadah, which tells the story of how Hashem led our forefathers from slavery (‘Avdut’) to freedom (‘Cheirut’). (Although, obviously, those who are enslaved also do not enjoy the first kind of freedom.) But, rather than just reading and telling the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the verse ‘Bechol dor vador chayav adam’, which many regard as one of the most important in the Haggadah, imposes on each and every generation an obligation to regard ourselves as having been freed by Hashem from slavery in Egypt.
Apart from encouraging us to relive the experience in order to appreciate the significance of the chag, Rabbi Mark Shapiro explains this obligation as an instruction to ‘remember the pain of the past in order to sensitise ourselves to ongoing pain in the contemporary world.’
In his book ‘The Jewish Way’, Rabbi Irving Greenberg also relates the Exodus to the human condition in general: ‘The freeing of the slaves testified that human beings are meant to be free. History will not be finished until all are free…
These two thoughts resonate with me at this time of Jewish celebration of our freedom from slavery. It is an appropriate time to ask ourselves: Have we who live relatively free lives become desensitised to the ongoing suffering of our fellow South Africans and Jews (both in Israel and the diaspora)? Do we spend enough time thinking about the lingering effects of the events of the last 60 years on both our country and Jews, in both Israel and the diaspora?
The first definition of freedom, the ‘power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants’ is the one that spreads the umbrella of slavery over millions of apparently free individuals. When a schoolboy in Paris takes off his kippah when he leaves the ground of his Jewish day school, he is not free. When a Jewish Israeli looks over her shoulder when walking about the streets of her neighbourhood, she is not free. When a domestic worker in South Africa is afraid to confront her employer about her demeaning working conditions and inadequate pay, she, too, is not free.
While thinking about freedom and what it means, I was constructing an argument in my mind along the lines that extreme poverty is also a form of slavery and that you can be technically free but ‘everywhere in chains’, to borrow a phrase from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract
So I was very interested to note that Oxford Dictionary includes in the definition of ‘slave’, among other more obvious things, ‘a person who works very hard without proper remuneration or appreciation.’ Sadly, this brings into the ambit of the term a large number of South Africans, who gained political freedom in 1994 but are still, to all intents and purposes, in chains.
As the late Nelson Mandela wrote in his Long Walk to Freedom, ‘Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.’ While the vast majority of our fellow South Africans live in abject poverty, can any of us truly consider ourselves free?
Even more poignantly, Madiba wrote: ‘I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.’
This idea that both the slave master and the slave are in chains is hauntingly similar to what Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela told me when I interviewed her. She’s studied and written about trauma, memory and reconciliation in relation to some of the worst large-scale human rights violations of our times — the Rwandan genocide, the By Caryn Gootkin Holocaust and the extreme violence of the apartheid era. She is best known for her book ‘A human being died that night’ about Eugene de Kock and how the TRC process affected both him and the families of his victims.
She publicly supported de Kock’s parole bid. Explaining this, she says, ‘When people have demonstrated fully that they are willing, wishing and hungry to re-join the realm of moral humanity, how can we deny them that right?’. Gobodo-Madikizela believes that in order to commit evil deeds against fellow human beings, as is required in times of war or genocide, the perpetrator has to dehumanise their victim. In so doing they dehumanise themselves, consigning both to slavery — one physical and the other emotional. The role of forgiveness, according to Gobodo-Madikizela, is to return to both victim and perpetrator their humanity, thus freeing them from the slavery that bound them together.
The Holocaust, the current wave of Palestinian violence against Jewish Israelis, and the wave of anti-semitism sweeping through the world demonstrate that the Jewish people, although no longer technically enslaved, are not free in the true sense of the word. Which is why we need to tell the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim each Pesach and teach the next generation what freedom truly means and why we should strive for it in each and every generation.