Not Kansas: 10 Symbolic Freedom-Actions

Whenever I think of the Passover Seder, two things pop into my head:

The secret hiding caves from the Bar-Kochba Revolt, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The year was 1968 and the date was April 4th. It was Thursday night, and we were having a model Seder at the Hebrew Academy in Kansas City, and entire families came. At 6pm King was assassinated. On our way home, we saw the National Guard deployed at various intersections and shopping centers. Rioting in response to the assassination had begun. When we had our *real* Seder a week later, the adults talked a lot about freedom. Of course, as a child of 9 or 10, I didn’t really know what they were talking about; I was waiting for the food and for The Great Afikoman Hunt and the prizes that come in its wake. But I remember my dad talking about this great man who was murdered, about our shared histories, about freedom, and about “leaving Egypt.” Later in life, when I read some of the writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., I was very moved. When I learned that A.J.Heschel marched with him from Selma to Montgomery, I was moved even more. He had agreed to be the Heschel’s guest that year at the Passover Seder, but he was murdered before it could happen.

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever,” King said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, ‘Let my people go.’ This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story.”

It’s true, even though it was 3500 years ago. We were slaves in Egypt. Much of our Jewish identity (according to our ancient texts and prayers) is based on the fact that we were slaves, and that we became a free people with a free land. As Jews, we need to focus often on freedom; it should be a great concern of ours: our own freedom, other people’s freedom.

But freedom is earned only when hate is conquered. We are told in the ancient texts of the Torah: “Do not hate an Egyptian, for you were strangers in their land.”

Freedom from hate will lead to freedom from all other slaveries. Without it, we will always be slaves.

The day before he was murdered, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis. He said:

“And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?’ I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land.”

I have often thought about that same question that Martin Luther King, Jr. asked himself: What time period would you like to live in? I have often asked others that question, too.

Many young Americans have told me: The Sixties! That was a great age! Protests were protests, people preached about love, music was authentic…

Many Israelis have told me: 1948! That was a great year! After 2,000 years, we finally had our independence. People had purer ideologies back then, people were more focused on the greater good, humus was humus…

Others have said: I would have wanted to be at Mt. Sinai when the Torah was given.

Or: I would have wanted to be in Jerusalem at the time of the Temple.

If someone would have asked me in high school, I would have immediately answered: 1970, when the Chiefs won the Superbowl!

But ever since I found that cave in the Galilee, I knew that I wanted to live during the time of the Bar Kochba Revolt. The Romans would not allow us to practice our religion and to freely express our beliefs and opinions and rituals, so we went underground and did it there. Sixty years earlier, the Romans had systematically raped Jewish women during the Great Revolt, so we dug tunnels to protect them from future abuse. We were sometimes prisoners in those tunnels, but we were often freer down there, than others were above ground, walking around freely. I would want to be there with them when they silently froze, knowing the Romans were just a few feet above them, scraping the limestone with their nail-studded sandals. Even for…60 seconds.

And yet – the Romans were not to be the focus of our energies or our anger – in either rebellion! The Talmud teaches that we lost the Great Revolt and the Temple and our independence in 70 C.E. because we were full of baseless hatred. And that we lost the Bar Kochba Revolt because of Lashon Harah, among other things.

If you want to be free, you must eradicate hate.

I speak now for nobody but myself: I believe every person and every people deserves freedom. It is a basic human right. This includes, in my opinion, the Palestinians too. And after being over a week on reserve duty in the IDF in what some call “The Occupied Territories” and others call “Judea and Samaria,” I can tell you from my heart that there is a great dissonance between what is happening in everyday life there, and what is reported in the media. I am actually optimistic, from what I have seen, that one day there will be peace here. But the first step, according to how I see things, is to eradicate hate. Anybody’s hate, towards anybody. All other steps taken might help or harm, but they won’t turn the tide. A paradigm change will happen only when a young generation wakes up one morning and says: “I refuse to hate.”

I believe this is also true in our personal lives. People perhaps have wronged us, have caused us pain, have scarred us; but the answer to healing and living in inner peace, lies with the elimination of our hatred towards others. Then, and only then, we will be truly free.

However: Until the world heals, we can give ourselves hope that freedom is just behind the next unopened door, by doing “symbolic freedom-actions.” Here are a few you might want to try out (if you haven’t already done them when you were at Livnot) :

1. Jump off a cliff (preferably into water) in order to feel as free as a bird. This is interchangeable with bungee-jumping, parachuting, etc.

2. Lie to someone, and tell them something incredibly nice about them that isn’t even true, but that will not cause damage. Free yourself from being too honest.

3. Think of one character trait that you are not happy about. The kind about which you think: “I can’t change this. It’s just the way I am. I was born this way.” Then decide on one day next week that will you will masquerade as somebody else by not acting with that character trait. Free yourself from your own self-image.

4. Go out of your comfort zone, in order to free yourself from your fears and from how others perceive you. How? Sing at the top of your lungs. Dance with a group of people. Laugh so hard that you cry. Cry! Free yourself from the fear of looking, sounding and appearing silly.

5. Give something away without getting anything in return. Free yourself from “things.”

6. Unaddict yourself from the media, and read/hear/see the news only when you really feel the need to do so. Free yourself from letting news services tell you what is important, who is “worthwhile,” what is *really* happening, and what stand to take.

7. Spend time with others who appreciate freedom, too, and who are willing to go out of their zone in order to do so. Find a soulmate who is a freedom-lover, and you might just reach “ultimate freedom.”

8. Go for a run, outside of a city, in order to free yourself from…almost everything.

9. Once a year, sit around a table (preferably while leaning back on a pillow) with friends and loved ones, and talk, sing, act, debate, eat, and drink freedom. It’s called a Passover Seder. And anybody can do it.

10. Come to The Great Livnot Reunion this August in the northeast, and celebrate life with other freedom-lovers! (Stay tuned for details…)

Feel Free!

Chag Sameach,

Michael