(Mis)understanding freedom


Why does the narrative of the Torah proceed directly from the freeing of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to their encounter with God on Mt. Sinai and the proclamation of the Ten Commandments?  When the people gain their freedom, there is a danger that they will misunderstand what it means.  They might think that they are now free to do whatever they want, to treat others as they have been treated, to act with a “high hand” (Exodus 14:8) against any people who are not like themselves.  To counter this possible misunderstanding of freedom, God immediately brings the people to Mt. Sinai and begins to teach them the guidelines by which they are obligated to live, the path that they have been freed in order to follow.  At Sinai, the people hear commandments that push them to respect the worth of other human beings, to protect the poor and the weak, and to ensure that they are not prioritizing their autonomy over the dignity which must be afforded to others.  These are the limits of freedom, the divine values that constrain our actions even as they free our hearts and souls to soar.  As we contemplate this week what it means to be at once bound and free, it is painful to hear in our own time people in this country, including our own government, misusing the concept of “religious freedom” in order to give license to discrimination on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristics.  This is the opposite of the lesson of Sinai, a perversion of the ideal of freedom enshrined in the founding documents of this nation.  What we gain with our freedom is the ability and the obligation to act against our basest impulses, to train ourselves to care for the dignity of those around us, and to do the difficult work of negotiating our differences without devaluing or discriminating against those who aren’t like us.  May our encounter with the story of Sinai this week renew in us a true understanding of what our freedom means and how it obligates us to act in this all-too-imperfect world.