by Rachael Kohn
‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose….’ I can hear Janis Joplin’s quavering voice as she belted out that refrain from Me and Bobby McGee – a clapped out, down-the-road song written by Kris Kristofferson in 1970. It became her one hit single, released after Janis succumbed to a heroin overdose.
Freedom defined as the absence of anything to live for is based on a dangerously negative view of life. It is little wonder that the struggling pop singer, who was hungry for fame in the pitiless rock music industry, died in a reckless and it seems unintended death.
I was fortunate to be on the receiving end of a freedom that held a positive view of life. And yet it might easily have been the reverse. My parents had lived through the most turbulent time in modern European history. Totalitarian regimes, diplomatic betrayal and the ravages of war serially took a devastating toll on them and their home country of Czechoslovakia.
The Holocaust, World War II, and the Soviet take-over could have destroyed all hope of a normal existence and dashed any vestige of belief in humanity. Yet, when the opportunity arose, my parents looked forward to making a new life in Israel. But after three years of more war and uncertainty they took their two young daughters and moved to Canada where I was born.
It wasn’t easy being emigres in the 1950s, with no family ties to make settlement in Canada easier. No longer in the bloom of youth, my parents learned English as a third and fourth language, they worked long hours, and gave us the sense of stability they longed for and the basic opportunities of a working class family.
Most importantly, my parents imbued me with a strong sense of the precious value of freedom, which, it was abundantly clear was not inevitable but a choice. Not only was this evident in their lives but it was also remembered each year at our Passover seder where we recited the entire Haggadah, commemorating the story of the Israelites who were taken out of Egypt with ‘a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, with great terror, and with signs and with wonders’ (Deut xxvi.8).
Yes, this ancient story of freedom was accompanied by miracles and hope, but it was also told with gratitude and thanks, “for His mercy endureth forever.” It was not a night of gloating in freedom won, nor of casting aspersions on the Egyptians -- it was expressly forbidden to do so -- for ‘they took us in when we were strangers in a strange land.” (Deut xxiii:8)
So where was the choice of freedom in this story? First, it was God’s choice to save the Israelites. I can already hear the chorus of sniggers from those who reject the belief in God’s intervention in history. You don’t have to be a naïve supernaturalist to recognise how much greater is the story of the reconstitution of the Israelite nation when told in a divine context. Israel’s destiny was not mere territorial gain or political autonomy, which any nation can achieve with the weapons of war. It was a commitment to morality.
For the second choice in the story in which all of Israel participated freely is the pledge to the law. The Ten Commandments begin with reference to the Exodus story of redemption: I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Ex xx:2). The revelation at Sinai forms the basis of a just life, setting out the rules of propriety, the value of life and honesty, loyalty, respect for parents and consideration of one’s neighbour, all of which are set against a life lived in bondage.
The Ten Commandments is not a list of rights nor of entitlements, but an acceptance of rules that are so foundational to our civilization that in America they are etched in public monuments, legislative buildings and courthouses. In Britain’s House of Lords, a special chamber where new peers are robed before being introduced to the House, shows a large mural of Moses bringing the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai.
But what has this choice of following the Ten Commandments to do with freedom?
They are not easy to do, after all, which is why the Israelites initially faltered. It is perhaps more natural to be selfish, to focus on your own desires and needs and impatiently want to realise your anticipated fortune, than it is to deny yourself anything, wait patiently for what is yours and accord others what they deserve.
Yet the hidden truth of freedom is that without purpose, without order and boundaries, without constructive tasks in service to others, in short without responsibilities, freedom leads to drift, meaninglessness, loneliness and despair. Without a focus on the interests of others, the preoccupation with yourself, your own hurts and slights, your failures as well as fantasies becomes a vortex of bottomless pain, which the endless desire to assuage through escape or substance abuse is no solution, but an invitation to oblivion.
The symbols of Passover can offer some insight. The bitter herbs and salty tears which we taste during the seder are clear reminders of the inescapable suffering that occurs in life. But the lesson of the iconic food, matzo, is more ironic. “Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, for in haste did you come forth out of the land of Egypt.’ (Deut 16.3). In a surprising twist the food of affliction becomes the opposite, a sign of freedom.
How can this ancient ritual of eating the bread of affliction for one week, repeated year after year for centuries and millennia, impart anything that is useful to someone living in today’s Australia? I think it can. The matzo for Passover is carefully prepared to prevent even the slightest fermentation or puffing up of the dough. Eighteen minutes is all that is allowed between the time the water touches the flour and its baking into stiff perforated sheets of brittle flatbread.
Some commentators have suggested that consuming matzo is a reminder to avoid the personal temptation of being ‘puffed up’. It seems a simple, even trite, lesson, but how much is our contemporary preoccupation with popularity and success all about looking out for number one? Polish your image, puff up your sense of worth (even your lips!) and you will be happy and successful. Surely, say the pundits, if you feel good about yourself then everyone around you will feel good too.
The truth is different. When you’re puffed up, you don’t notice how much people around you are suffering, how much they need your help, and how much you yourself could benefit from being less preoccupied with yourself and more concerned about others.
All those sad statistics of the entertainment industry, of which Janis Joplin was one, might have benefited from recognising that the choice of freedom is a choice filled with life giving responsibilities. And if it isn’t then it’s not freedom but its opposite.
Let us eat the bread of affliction once again and think on what it is to be free.
Rachael Kohn is an Australian author and broadcaster who since 1992 has presented and produced programs on Religion and Spirituality for ABC Radio National, beginning with Religion Report, Religion Today, and from 1997 to 2018, The Spirit of Things.
Kohn has also produced award winning features for Encounter as well as the television documentaries The Dead Sea Scrolls (2000) and Buddhism East and West (2001). She also produced the program Paws for Thought on animals and spirituality for Compass on ABC TV.
Kohn is a frequent speaker on Religion and Spirituality in Australia. She has published two books, The New Believers: Re-imagining God (2003) and Curious Obsessions in the History of Science and Spirituality (2007).