Expressing Freedom With Higher Authority

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, is the Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, where she also received her ordination. She also holds her MBA in Marketing Management from Baruch College, and helps bring those skills and expertise into the operational practices of rabbis and congregations throughout North America.

posted on July 3, 2023

For years, July 4th was an annual reunion as my extended family gathered poolside to enjoy good food and relaxing celebration leading to evenings of magnificent sounds and colors of fireworks.  Family trips were scheduled with anticipation of seeing relatives and frolicking together.  Still, I am keenly aware this day was not always marked with such frivolity or individual vacation-like activities.

Prior to 1776, colonists held annual celebrations of the king’s birthday including bell ringing, bonfires, processions and speechmaking. Following the declaration,  some celebrated the birth of independence by holding mock funerals for King George as a symbol of the monarchy’s end in America and the triumph of liberty. Those festivities included concerts, bonfires, parades, the firing of cannons, and the public reading of the Declaration of Independence. A year later, Philadelphia held the first annual commemoration of in the midst of ongoing war.

While the political thrust of the day has certainly declined, Independence Day remains as a beacon of freedom and patriotism. From the time of the Exodus from Egypt, Jews have known the continuous quest for freedom as the path towards worshipping God that comes with real responsibility.  In fact, for Jews, freedom and responsibility are intertwined and co-dependent.  Freedom is a necessary condition of responsibility; and taking on responsibility gives meaning to freedom. 

The Hebrew language itself remind us of this interconnectivity. Vacation/free time is chofesh or chufshah.  The same Hebrew root can also mean “liberating” time, as it is Biblical term used for freeing an indentured servant, often one who had to work off debts.  On the other hand, the word for “idleness” is batlanut, wasting one’s time.  In the Talmud, the term refers to one who has the leisure for serious study.  Finally, a significant Jewish community is defined as one that has at least ten batlanim, people engaged in regular contemplation of Torah and its values.  

To be free is to be unencumbered by time in order that we might serve a higher purpose – to learn and grow in alignment with God. As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Freedom does not mean the right to live as we please.  It means the power to live spiritually, to rise to a higher level of existence...  Freedom comes about in the moment of transcending the self, thus rising above the habit of regarding the self as its own end.  Freedom is an act of self-engagement of the spirit, a spiritual event.”

May we all celebrate this July 4th as a day to celebrate recognizing that true freedom comes through the willingness to engage beyond the self.