Religion Today: Put freedom to work for justice

For years, I have fought a war of attrition with my dog — and, of course, lost.

Being a terrier, Sophie is an escape artist. She loves to bolt, burrow, or sneak her way out of my house and yard, despite my constant efforts to constrain her. But what makes this utterly frustrating to me is the fact that each time she gets out, she runs around for 20 minutes or so — and then comes back home.

And so I wonder: What’s the point of this? Sophie has it pretty good at my house: abundant food and water, comfortable bed on any couch or chair that she desires, people that love her. What is she running from? Why does she expend such effort to get away when she just ends up coming back anyway?

Then I realize that in this respect, as in so many others, we are not so different from our dogs. We long to be free from all that shackles us — and then, when we get our freedom, we realize that sometimes it is, ironically, precisely the confines that provide the true security and even creativity that enable us to thrive.

We human beings need boundaries, even as we chafe against them. Thus Robert Frost famously taught that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. You can do it — but it is neither productive nor fun. Here in the libertarian West, it may be somewhat heretical to say this, but truthfully, law, structure, and discipline do not limit us. They open us up and provide life’s meaning.

Jewish tradition does not exult freedom without limits. For us, freedom is a means and not an end — an opportunity to take on holy obligations and responsibilities. In this spring season, between our festivals of Passover and Shavuot, God instructs us to number each day for seven full weeks. This period is known as sefirat ha-omer. With this counting, we draw an explicit connection between our liberation from Egypt (at Passover) and our acceptance of the Torah, 50 days later, at Mt. Sinai (on Shavuot). We move past “freedom from” towards “freedom for and to.” Emancipation is just the beginning. To remain stuck in this stage is to be ever the haughty child declaiming, “You’re not the boss of me.”

Freedom is just the first step, a means toward our higher human calling to take on the sacred responsibility of repairing the world. As Kathleen Norris puts it, in her lovely book, The Cloister Walk: “What looks to so many people like restriction ends in freedom ... An ordered life, a disciplined life, is not lived at the price of freedom. One might even hold that freedom is enhanced as the relationships in which I find myself are enriched. That would explain how we might be persuaded that our greatest freedom is found in our relationship with God.”

Here in Idaho, we talk a lot of freedom. Now it’s time to use that freedom to work for justice for all Idahoans. Otherwise, we’re no more advanced than my dog.