Everything is foreseen, yet the freedom of choice is given. The world is judged with Goodness, and everything depends on the abundance of good deeds. – Pirkei Avos
I’m in love with freedom.
I love that I can choose where I go to dinner, who I can marry, what I should do for my career, and where I live. It’s exhilarating….and terrifying.
It’s terrifying because it means I can’t blame anyone else for my actions. Ultimately, I am responsible for both the good and bad things I do, the good and bad I bring to the world. I cannot shirk moral responsibility.
David Brooks wrote a fascinating Passover themed article this week called The Long Obedience.
He writes that at Passover we celebrate the Israelites transition from slavery to freedom, that this celebration is consistent with modern values.
However, we pay less attention to the rest of the story.
After the Israelites are freed, they encounter new challenges as a result of their liberty.
The Israelites in Exodus whine; they groan; they rebel for petty reasons. When they are lost in a moral wilderness, they immediately construct an idol to worship and give meaning to their lives.
The Israelites continue to sin, even when they have the freedom to do good and be good.
In order to guard against the darker side of free will, they have to create laws to guide their behavior, laws to help them live a good and just life. They escaped the Egyptians and won their liberty, but then they imposed self-restraints to ensure they don’t abuse their liberty.
The laws tame the ego and create habits of deference by reminding you of your subordination to something permanent. The laws spiritualize matter, so that something very normal, like having a meal, has a sacred component to it. The laws build community by anchoring belief in common practices. The laws moderate religious zeal; faith is not expressed in fiery acts but in everyday habits. The laws moderate the pleasures; they create guardrails that are meant to restrain people from going off to emotional or sensual extremes.
Many of us abuse our freedom and our liberty. I suspect most of our thoughts and actions are focused on our selves; focused on how to get the things we want. If a rule or law gets in the way of what we want, we are quick to become frustrated and declare the law is unjust.
As someone who falls on the libertarian side of things, I believe that the role of government should be minimized and individual freedom should be maximized.
However, I’m beginning to think that with our freedom, we should voluntarily follow rules and voluntarily embrace constraints in order to live good lives.
Those with great self-discipline may be able to impose these constraints on their lives by themselves, but most of us need the support of a group to help us live by these rules.
When I was in high school, I ran track and cross-country. We had practice every day after school. If we skipped practice enough times, we would be kicked off the team. In addition, your peers would judge you as lazy and uncommitted.
There were many days that I didn’t want to run, when I thought life would be easier if I wasn’t a member of the track team, but I stuck with it.
I ran almost every day.
Today, the responsibility to run falls on me, and no one else. No rules, no group pressure, it’s just me.
I run at most, once or twice a week now.
The need for rules and rituals and groups may seem obvious in the context of fitness, but for whatever reason we fail to see why we need those things to guide the rest of our lives.
Exodus provides a vision of movement that is different from mere escape and liberation. The Israelites are simultaneously moving away and being bound upward. Exodus provides a vision of a life marked by travel and change but simultaneously by sweet compulsions, whether it’s the compulsions of love, friendship, family, citizenship, faith, a profession or a people.
Instead of continuing to pursue individual liberty, perhaps we should consider what we can do to bind ourselves upward.