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The Paradox of Freedom

Editor’s Note: The Forward’s Youth Writing Contest is asking middle and high school students to submit essays, short stories and poems on the topic “What It Means To Be Free.” We’re still accepting entries at [email protected] — you can find the entry guidelines here.The deadline is Friday, May 1. Today, we’re proud to publish this essay by 15-year-old Yakir Brawer from the Maimonides School in Brookline, MA. We’ll be publishing more exciting new voices soon. You can find some of them here.

Along with lockdowns and curfews, the year of 2020 has brought us a dreadful sense of constraint. When confined within the same walls week after week, freedom feels hard to appreciate or relate to. The freedom we once had to interact with the public is ever so apparent now that we do not have it. On Passover, when many of us didn’t have the freedom to travel to families or gather with them, we once again questioned the meaning of freedom.

Yakir Brawer

Contestant: Yakir Brawer is a 15-year-old student at the Maimonides School in Brookline, MA. Image by Courtesy of Yakir Brawer

Freedom is often understood as the ability to exercise one’s wishes free from obstacles and barriers. This typical interpretation is known as Negative Liberty. Another, conflicting perspective, is that of Positive Liberty. Positive Liberty is the freedom to make decisions using one’s own individual conscience regardless of outside influence. For the philosopher Immanuel Kant, the ability to make a decision uninfluenced by your body’s desires and urges is the key to ultimate liberation. Kant believes that if you are wholly subject to the deliverances of your senses, (alleviating pain or maximizing pleasure) then you would not be capable of freedom because every exercise of your will would be determined by your senses and desires. If one is able to make a decision that is contrary to his desires but does so because it is the right thing to do, he has freed himself from one of life’s most dominant influences. Unlike Negative Liberty which is determined by an outside source, this idea of Positive Liberty is a personal freedom from within, which the individual has the ultimate power to control. In a way, the process of obtaining this personal freedom is somewhat paradoxical because in order to be free one must suppress his desires, which is essentially denying freedom to his senses. This paradox blurs the line between freedom and restriction and questions the limits of both.

Many regard law as a violation of freedom as its process is restriction and enforcement. Although the law itself may very well be a violation of Negative Liberty, partaking in the law is an act of positive liberation. When choosing to follow the law, one compromises his own wishes for the greater good of society. It is the choice to prioritize the betterment of society regardless of any conflicting personal desires that is truly liberating. This liberty is exceptionally significant because it enables one to rise above the moral detriments of his impulse. Following the acceptance of the ten commandments, the Torah describes the tablets as “the work of God” with the “writing of God engraved upon it” (Exodus 10:13). The Hebrew word for engraved (harut) sounds similar to the word for freedom (herut). The Rabbis note this correlation and assert that “There is no free person but one who engages in the study of Torah” (Pirkei Avot 6:2). Again, this sounds paradoxical as the Torah is brimming with laws and restrictions. The Rabbis are pointing to Positive Liberty. It may not be comfortable or natural for one to comply with the Torah’s demanding commandments, However, if he decides to overcome the discomfort and abide by the Torah, then as the Rabbis say, he is truly free.

I enjoy taking landscape photographs. I also enjoy sleeping in, past the early but optimum hours of sunrise. Unfortunately, these two urges of mine come in conflict as I decide whether to enjoy a peaceful rest or to tear myself from it so that I can make the most out of the soft dawn light. As I am quite literally alarmed by my alarm clock, I am faced with the choice to either take advantage of my Negative Liberty and mute the alarm standing in the way of my sleep, or to take Positive Liberty upon myself by allowing the inner photographer to wrest away the voice of my senses. Although on occasion I have favored the former, I usually opt for the latter as its consequent outcome is immensely rewarding. And so there I am, gazing through an early morning mist across a glassy lake. The sun crawls up from behind the hills and scatters its strength, it wipes the weariness from my eyes and fills them with an appreciation of the freedom I chose for myself.

Along with lockdowns and curfews, the year of 2020 has brought us an opportunity to exercise our personal liberty. It may not be instinctive to stay home separate from friends and family, however, It is vital that all comply with these unnatural and rather taxing restrictions to improve the general public health. In this critical time, freedom is to restrain yourself from the urge to gather with friends. Freedom is choosing to protect the public by wearing an uncomfortable mask. Freedom is discipline.

Yakir Brawer is a 15-year-old student at the Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.


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