A person brought an objection against his next door neighbour for building an outhouse in his backyard. He objected to the unpleasant smell severely limiting his enjoyment of his garden. The neighbour insisted that he was free to build his outhouse as it was on his property. The court decided that he was free to build his outhouse but forbidden to allow the smell to cross over to his neighbour’s space.
In Canada, we recently witnessed the “Freedom Convoy” in-person or via the media. For three weeks citizens were assembling in Ottawa and across communities around the country protesting. Convoys of trucks blocked streets, bridges, and border crossings.
This sizeable and vocal minority declared their lack of trust in our government and proceeded to demonstrate against the limitations on their rights and freedoms by the vaccine mandate. Citizens affected looked on in frustration to the police and government. Legal challenges were mounted against the protest as the noise and blockades were seen, in effect, as an infringement on their rights and freedoms.
The federal government was unprepared and unsure how to proceed. Eventually, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came forward and branded the protests an occupation.
Ultimately, the government invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time, which led to much debate and disagreement among politicians playing out fully in the media with many commentators expressing their views. All in all, we appear to be caught in a divisive and fractured moment in our country’s history with uncertainty of what is true or false, right or wrong.
Meanwhile, here in Saskatchewan we are no longer required to show proof of vaccination and masking requirements were lifted March 1. At our small but very active Beth Jacob community, our board of directors convened and discussed how we would respond to these shifts. Some were concerned with lifting restrictions and others were ready to move on. The discussion around the board was full, intense and at all times respectful. The meeting went on for close to an hour and despite obvious differences, the members of the board chose to shelve their personal feelings for a resolution believed to be in the best interests of the whole community. I couldn’t help but wish that everything would operate like our volunteer board of directors.
It coincides with the fast approaching Passover holiday—the freedom festival.
But what does Judaism, and specifically Passover, have to teach us about freedom and what to do in times like these?
As Hashem tells us, “This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to Hashem throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time” (Exodus 12:14).
In Jewish homes across the planet we will celebrate the first night of Passover with a traditional seder. Families sitting together and fulfilling the requirement to tell the story of Exodus—how Jews were freed from slavery. But why is it so important to retell the story as we have done for some 3,300 years, considering it was so long ago? Is it still relevant today?
Freedom is precious and requires care and nurture. If you were raised in a free country such as Canada, you may have a tendency to take it for granted and that is when it can be lost. To quote Joni Mitchell in her song “Big Yellow Taxi”: “Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve got/ ‘Til it’s gone.”
The underlying message of Passover can be related back to what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l once said concerning education, “To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need schools.”
It is important to teach your children well in and out of the classroom; share with them and each other the matzah, the bread of affliction. Sit together and imagine the excitement, fear and uncertainty of that moment 33 centuries ago and ask together the question, “What does it mean to be free?”
I was asked this question by one of my students a number of years ago. He offered that for him freedom was the right to do what he wanted. I asked him, “what if his actions resulted in hurt to others?” He didn’t have a response. I explained by paraphrasing the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l, “Freedom is not the right to do what you want, it is to do what you ought to do—with freedom comes responsibility.”
Eventually, the “Freedom Convoy” was dispersed by police acting relatively peacefully. But the debate around this event will continue and hopefully, as with all debates—at synagogue boards, committees, or seders—good lessons will be learned.
This year, don’t just celebrate as you sit at your seder table. Take advantage of the wisdom of Torah, God’s gift to us. Teach your children, tell the story, consider and discuss how each of us can practice Tikkun olam, or repair our world.
May the holidays be a joyful time for us all.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.
Rabbi Jeremy Parnes received rabbinic ordination through the ALEPH Ordination Program (AOP). He has been the Spiritual Leader of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Regina since 1998. He is active in interfaith and chaplaincy work and is a member of the Regina MultiFaith Forum and Chair of the Regina Correctional Facility Chaplains Committee. Rabbi Jeremy serves on the Board of ALEPH:Alliance for Jewish Renewal. He is committed to Deep Ecumenism—building bridges to deeper understanding and respect across faith communities.