Freedom and Responsibility - That’s the Deal

By David Cohen

This phrase “Freedom and Responsibility – That’s the Deal” was often used by a mentor of mine, and it has been swirling through my mind of late.  With the holiday of Passover coming up – the clear connection of our people to this concept is stark and compelling – and quite relevant to a multitude of modern dilemmas.

The Israelites in our Passover narrative are in what some call the “adolescent” stage of our people’s history.  For generations, they were slaves unto Pharoah and though this is a tale of woe and hardship – it is also a tale of dependence and independence.  We had migrated to Egypt due to famine, and Joseph’s rise to prominence garnered us comfort and security in a foreign land.  We should hear a familiarity there not just with our more modern history, but in the echoes of Esther and Mordechai rising to power and being the only thing that stood between the Jewish people and annihilation.

The Passover story though is one of Freedom AND Responsibility.  We were freed from bondage - but our dependence on Pharoah and Egypt made us wary of self-government and independence from the start.  Who is this Moses and why should we dismiss the devil we know for a life of uncertainty and a journey of possible peril?  “Should we go back to Egypt?” was asked at almost every step.  Even in the desert as we doubted Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership – there was a dissatisfaction with our leaders, political upheaval, and a rejection of a God few barely knew or remembered.  These were days when freedom was not something we were comfortable with and times where our identity was not something we had much certainty about.

In many ways, these questions, dilemmas, and our perplexing relationship with ourselves and our God are the deeper issues many see us grappling with beneath the surface of our story or exodus and redemption.  We can even see these complexities play out in our dialogue surrounding the modern state of Israel.  We are free and we have a nation-state – but are we bearing the responsibility that comes with it well – either in relation to our own people or others?  For many, we do live up to that responsibility every day – especially given the circumstances.  For others, the criticism is harsh and severe. 

But whether we are talking about modern or ancient history – we know there is this complex duality within our conversations that is all about our freedom and responsibility – as a people. This is actually the biblical narrative when we become a “people” who are supposed to be all about responsibility – to each other, to our families, to our community, and for the world.  This is the text where we see repeatedly the imperative for the lessons of the V’ahavtah – where we are to teach certain lessons to our children.  We are to keep these lessons in mind when we rise up and when we lie down.  We are to bind our relationship to God and community for a sign upon our forehead, between our eyes.  We are to post proudly a symbol of this bond on the doorposts of our home.  This is where we learn of the connection between learning and doing - between telling and remembering.  This narrative is where we are told to gather yearly at the same time not just to eat and pray – but to tell the story of our people – a people inspired to peoplehood by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - and formed into a people with a covenant by Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam – and yes – by Pharaoh, too – an enemy who compelled us to think of ourselves more as a unified people than a disparate collection of people known as Hebrews. 

So this is us.  A people who celebrate both freedom and independence in the modern age – and a people who have always cherished obligation, responsibility, and a proud history or resistance to those who would mean us harm.

As Passover, Yom HaShoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Haatzmaut approach, how can we not reflect on all these themes?  As we grapple with an Israel at war and try to comprehend the daily lives of hostages still being held in Gaza - how can we not reflect on all of what it means to be free, responsible, under attack, and under obligation?  It can either be mind boggling or it can make perfect sense in an imperfect world.

In a recent New York Times article, Ken Marcus of the Brandeis Center was featured for his work which largely echoes these themes as it relates to the confluence of Jewish life on campus and anti-Israel speech and activity.  This article stood out to me because I have always seen the balance of Freedom and Responsibility as central to the challenge of discussing Israel and free expression on campus.  A handbook I always have handy is titled Academic Rights and Academic Responsibility.  What this handbook emphasizes is the basic premise that Ken tries to convey – one can’t exist without the other.  You simply cannot have free expression on campus – or anywhere, really – without the accompanying responsibility to assure accuracy, academic integrity, and transparency of research.  A campus cannot just be a place where the most recent trend in public opinion is what certifies what is credible debate, discussion, and dialogue.  And a campus should not be a place where only certain groups are protected from bias and hostility while others are not.  The Times article accurately reported the criticism of Ken’s work by stating that some believe that to hold people accountable for their speech is to stifle free expression.  Which in a sense, it is.  Just like one cannot shout fire in a crowded theater because of the risk of harm, our society has deemed that some speech is not acceptable without consequences.  And the work that Ken does is simply that – to say that with the freedom to say, comes the responsibility to impose and accept needed consequences when a community is made to feel at risk because of that speech or expression.   Freedom and Responsibility – that’s the deal.

Lastly, as these streams of Jewish thought and political reality continue to stir, I can’t help but think of the giant our community has just lost – Sandy Cohen z’’l.  Though I only recently met Sandy, he was one of the first leaders I broke bread with prior to my move to Harrisburg, I can’t help but reflect on his leadership as yet another example of this paradigm – Freedom and Responsibility.  Listening to both his own accounts of his upbringing and to how his friends and family described his larger-than-life persona, this mantra seems to fit the way he lived.  He lived to bask in the freedom this country and his business success provided for him – and though he could have just enjoyed those spoils – an equally important sense of responsibility and gratitude was part of his very essence.  I know we won’t ever be able to replace the leadership he provided, nor the Tzadik he was.  But his memory and his example will be for a blessing upon our entire community.  We can only continue to reflect on his affable nature, his larger-than-life presence, and his sense of being a link in the chain of L’dor V’dor – from generation to generation, we are responsible for those who come after us.  Thank you Sandy – we will do our best to live up to your standard.