What Are the Blessings and Curses of Freedom?


By David Curzon

Published August 22, 2003, issue of August 22, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

See, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing if you hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God… and the curse if you shall not hearken….

— Deuteronomy 11:26

The opening of this week’s portion, Re’eh, establishes the exercise of free will, and the blessings and curses of the consequences of free choice, as a preoccupation with which to examine whatever follows.

Deuteronomy 15:12-18 prescribes that a Hebrew slave of either gender must, after six years of servitude, be offered the opportunity to regain freedom. It also prescribes that, should the slave choose to stay in servitude, he or she will be taken to a door and have a hole bored through one ear and into the door with an awl.

The focus of concern is the case of the slave who has lived under a reasonable master who has provided food and clothing and productive employment. Going into freedom entails leaving a situation that is known and safe and bearable. It is implied but not stated that wandering the streets of the ancient Middle East as an ex-slave looking for work and shelter and the next meal is not necessarily an attractive prospect. And in some cases, as the details of the parallel text in Exodus 21:2-6 make clear, it would mean leaving a spouse and children. The text is at pains to present a serious choice.

Our text presents a paradigm of wide applicability and great power, but in order to see this clearly, we have to get away from the issue of slavery, which does not apply to our circumstances. We can do this by means of the great rabbinic interpretative technique known as binyan av. Using this technique, we can say of the text that implicit in it is a historical general paradigm couched in terms of the historical specifics of an ancient slave-owning society. In order to see the text’s applicability to ourselves, we must first impute the general case and then show how this general case manifests itself in historical circumstances similar to our own.

Imputing the general case is fairly straightforward: We only need to break down the narrative into its component stages and then generalize each one in turn.

First, the initial circumstances involve a slave, that is to say someone whose freedom to act is circumscribed. But we all are living in circumstances that constrain our freedom to act: We all have obligations to family and friends and employers or clients, and we all have, in addition, limitations of capacity and inclination and talents and funds. The person in constrained circumstances, which is our text’s starting point, can be understood as completely general. It is anyone living in a tolerable but far from ideal situation.

Next, the person in constrained but tolerable circumstances is offered an opportunity to expand his freedom to act. The opportunity involves radical change. The person weighs the pros and cons of going into what appears to be circumstances of greater freedom against staying in an existing tolerable situation. He then makes a completely rational choice to take or not take the opportunity offered.

Finally, this refusal of the opportunity to live in greater freedom results in a small but permanent mutilation. In the general case, this mutilation could be, and normally would be, a small permanent wound to the soul or psyche.

The most obvious way in which such situations manifest themselves in our own time is the choice of staying in or getting out of a dull but decent marriage (or relationship) or job.

To stay in a secure but stultifying marriage or job is to have its blessings and curses, its realization of some of our potential selves and its mutilation of other potentials. And to leave is to acquire another set of blessings and curses, another set of realizations and mutilations. And even in the 21st century, it is possible to be quite mistaken about current situations, let alone about prospective situations. And there’s still some pain involved in acquiring more realistic knowledge, which still has to be mainly acquired through irreversible experience. We can never fully realize more than a small fraction of the possibilities that present themselves to us or that are potential in us. In the end we can’t avoid, we can’t be liberated from, the necessity of choosing those parts of our potential selves that will be realized. This severing of ourselves from most of our potential is the unavoidable mutilation at the heart of the aspect of the human condition out text portrays.

The blessing inherent in freedom is the ability to guide our own lives, or at least have the illusion of doing this. And the unavoidable curse, apart from the possibility of mistaken and disastrous choices, is that for each choice we make each day there are a multitude of selves, a multitude of potentials, we have chosen not to realize.

As it is said, “See, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.”

David Curzon is the author of “The View From Jacob’s Ladder” and a contributing editor of the Forward.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.