Freedom Once Gained Must Never Be Given Up
Thoughts on Parashat Bo
The story we find in this week’s Torah portion to a certain extent serves as a matrix for many processes which took place over the course of the world’s history. It describes the slow collapse of tyrannical power. Slow and dramatic, since despotism never ends suddenly and painlessly. When I speak of despotism, I don’t mean the dictatorial inclinations and the abuse of power by a certain group which came to power one way or the other. What I have in mind is a well-established and functioning system of social and political enslavement.
However, on the other hand our Biblical story is very specific and it differs from other stories describing other cases of the collapse of despotism. First of all, actually only one group – the Israelites – gets liberated from tyranny here. Secondly, they gain freedom without sustaining much real damage, and it is only at a later time that they will have to pay a price for this freedom (however, here one could point to certain historical parallels, such as the collapse of the communist rule in Poland and what happened afterwards.)
And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians — because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead (Shemot/Exodus 12:30.)
The Pharaoh, just like all of Egypt, is devastated by the plague of the firstborns’ death. Let’s imagine a similar disaster were to happen in one of the modern societies and what kind of social and political consequences that could have…. On the other hand, there is something unbelievable and astonishing in this drama. Egypt says to the Israelites – go and take whatever you want, we’ve had enough of you; but at the same time there is no (direct) act of revenge at all.
Right after Israel, now freed from under the Pharaoh’s tyranny, leaves Egypt, in the Biblical narrative we find a series of laws regarding the observance of Passover – the festival of liberation and freedom. Both the Torah and our tradition which derives from it place a very strong emphasis on observing all of these laws. Why? Because we must never lose the freedom which we’ve already gained. We must never go back to Egypt, even if the memory of it might be tempting, just as it happened many times during the Israelites’ journey across the desert.
This applies not only to us, Jews, but also to all of humanity and to the entire world, since nothing has changed with regards to this matter since ancient times. Our freedom is always under threat. It is mostly radical groups, led by radical ideologist, both from the political right and left, who seek to limit it or take it away from us altogether. They all tell us lies, presenting their ideological ideas as a path to “true freedom”, a path that in reality almost always ends with the enslavement of at least a certain part of the society, if not of all of it.
Therefore we must not be deceived by their promises, no matter how appealing they might seem to us. Freedom is taken away from us step by step, selectively, in a way that is impossible to notice from a short-term perspective. Mussolini said that you must pluck a chicken one feather at a time, so that it won’t put up too much resistance. Even tearing out a whole handful of feathers won’t be met with a determined, staunch resistance, if the remaining feathers of democracy, freedom and the rule of law don’t seem to be at risk for the time being and if they seem to be enough to guarantee survival. Also, as we know very well from history, the fact that someone has come to power in a democratic and constitutional way does not necessarily mean and does not guarantee that they will wield that power in a way that is democratic and safe for the citizens. There are many warning signs cautioning against this looming threat. One such sign are the attacks on the freedom of speech, which also entail attacks on the freedom of thought, public expression, publishing etc. Every tyrant wants to wield absolute power over people’s minds. Such authoritarian inclinations can be noticed both on the right and the left side of the political scene. Actual human enslavement starts with the enslavement of the mind. Every attack on the freedom of speech, on the freedom to talk and express oneself freely, is an attack on the freedom of communication – and thereby on the freedom of thought and the right to hold one’s own views. That is why it is so crucial to cultivate everyone’s freedom of thought, beliefs and speech as well as everything that reminds us of their importance.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka