Free to Choose

Charlotte Cohen is an award-winning short story writer, essayist and poet, whose work has appeared in a wide variety of South African publications since 1973. This story was first published in the Pesach 2010 issue of Jewish Affairs.

Each Jewish festival seems to give expression to a particular aspect of human experience.

As Rosh Hashanah deals with renewal and rebirth, and Yom Kippur with remorse and remission, so the underlying message of Passover is one of deliverance and redemption.

Passover reminds us each year of its underlying message of liberation.

Because there were several Jewish members in the Toastmasters club to which I belonged,

it was decided that although the next meeting did not actually fall within the week of

Passover since it coincided with the celebration of Easter, we would organise a meeting with a combined theme of Easter and Passover. The Christian members of the club would bring Easter eggs and speak about the meaning and customs of Easter; whereas the Jewish members would bring matzos and Passover delicacies and discuss the significance of the rituals and practices associated with Passover.

Taking into account its fundamental message of emancipation, my assignment was to speak on ‘Freedom.’

There was only one problem: I could think of nothing to write about it.

For days I tried to imagine an illustrative story; or how to explain the concept of freedom

in an inspirational way or how to present this abstract noun as identifiable ….

But still nothing came to mind.

With only three days before the meeting, I decided to look up the word in a dictionary, hoping it would provide some spark to alleviate my impasse. The dictionary however only described ‘freedom’ in antonyms: It was not being in bondage; it was not being in captivity; it was not being enslaved.

It evoked no interpretive response.

I decided to check a thesaurus: Under the heading ‘Freedom’ I found this quotation by Franz Kafka: “It is often safer to be in chains than it is to be free.”

It still provided me with no relevance …..

How does one define ‘freedom? What state of existence must one be in to be free? It may mean something entirely different to each individual person. Is a mother free when she has 3 children to look after, has to work and has an elderly parent to care for as well? Is a man free to resign from a job in which he is unhappy, when he is committed to the hilt with home and business commitments and a family dependent on his income? Is one free when beset by ill-health or physically dependent by being confined to a wheel-chair, or worse?

Does freedom mean doing or saying whatever one wants - ignoring protocol or convention?

And I still had nothing ….

Finally, I decided to go to the root of it all:

As the reason for speaking about ‘freedom’ in the first place was its association with Passover and the emancipation of the Jews, I began to wonder how Moses and the children of Israel, after wandering 40 years in the desert, must have felt when they finally reached the ‘Promised Land’?

I wondered whether the bible provided any insight into the emotion Moses experienced at that time and whether one could reach into it.

... I fetched a bible from the bookshelf and paged through it to find the part where Moses finally reached the promised land…..

In doing so, in my quest to find something meaningful to say about freedom, the journey on which I had embarked would bring two discoveries:

The first - was something I did not realize (- and which, it would appear, very few people are aware of either). The second, although simple, was in my terms, more of a revelation!

Besides providing me with the topic for my speech, it provided me with a concept which had a profound effect on my thinking ever since.

I found what I was looking for in Deuteronomy. As we know, Moses does not enter the promised land – but only looks across at it. And then, Chapter 5 verse 6 reads: “I am the Lord they God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage” before it continues to recount the rest of The Ten Commandments.

What struck me as odd was the reference to the ‘house of bondage’ a in the first place - and that after the 4th Commandment (-- but the seventh day is the Sabbath; in it thou shalt not do any work ….) was again the interjection: “And remember thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee thence through a mighty hand and a stretched out arm.”

I wondered what these reminders from The Ten Commandments had to do with being a slave in the land of Egypt and now being free? In fact, why were The Ten Commandments interrupted like this at all - with reference to ‘our being servants in the land of Egypt’?

I told my son, Steven, about the interjections and asked him why he thought they were there.

He stared at me blankly.

“There are no interjections about being slaves given during The Ten Commandments’, he said.

“There are!’ I argued. “I saw them with my own eyes.”

“There aren’t!” He was adamant.

He fetched the bible – and opened it at ‘Exodus’ – where Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God.

There were no reminders or interpolations in it!

I was astounded! I insisted that I had seen it.

Steven said I must have been hallucinating. In fact, trying to be funny, he got up and with arms waving madly around, he shouted “A miracle! A miracle!”

And he said I must have been hallucinating. In fact, trying to be funny, he got up and with arms waving madly around, he shouted “A miracle! A miracle!”

Then the penny dropped!!

We had seen ‘The Ten Commandments’ in two different places!

My son read them as they were given to Moses, in ‘Exodus’.

Whereas, by my focusing on when Moses had actually reached the Promised Land, I had read them in ‘Deuteronomy’ - where the commandments are repeated by Moses to the ‘children of Israel’.

The interjections were, of course, made by Moses and not by God...

Right, so that problem was solved.

But still, why did Moses repeat them? What significance did they have?

What did the liberation of Jews from being slaves in Egypt have to do with ‘The Ten Commandments’ anyway? .….

Furthermore, thinking along those lines, the connection between ‘Freedom’ and the Ten Commandments’ could be no coincidence. Why were they mentioned at the same time? What had the one to do with the other? How were they bound?


What a contradiction!

What a paradox!

The Israelites finally, after forty years, were to enter the ‘Land of Freedom’.


How could this be defined as ‘Freedom’? … especially if this ‘freedom’ was unequivocally regulated by laws which forbade certain things and which decisively drew boundaries?

….. Now I began to understand what Kafka meant: “It is often safer to the in chains than it is to be free.” …

A lamb put out in the wilderness is not free at all. It is doomed: Yet, within the confines of a pen, it is safe: There it is able to eat and play without risk. The lamb is ‘free’ there because it is protected.


And freedom is only freedom when we are protected by the confines of just and prescribed laws.

Although one may be free inasmuch as one is not at someone else’s beck-and-call, real freedom is dependent on the restraints of conscience and integrity.

These are our controls. These are our limits.


Referring again to The Ten Commandments, we find that the first four deal with man’s relationship to God, whereas the last six, with man’s relationship to other men. …

Yet - perhaps with the exception of the personal discipline of “Thou shalt not covet” - there is no commandment which puts a limit on our thinking.

Therefore, the only unconditional freedom we have as human beings is freedom of thought. Here we are free to question, to contemplate, to consider, imagine, plan, calculate and, most importantly, we are free to choose.

Our power of choice (described as a power even greater than the angels, seeing they can only do good) is the greatest power bestowed on any living creature! If then, the truest meaning of freedom is the application of our power of choice within the confines of a moral and ethical code of behavior, the message of freedom which we learn at Passover, extends itself to every decision we make, every single day of our lives. For it is then - where we have the freedom to contemplate and consider; to reposition ourselves; to rethink and reaffirm our values - that we genuinely exercise ‘freedom’ in this miraculous power of choice we have been given.

Many learned and respected leaders have spoken about the necessity of bringing principle and honor back into our thinking; and particularly in South Africa, despite our individual faiths and backgrounds, to our having a common code of morality.

It has been emphasized that as nations, we can be ‘individual yet united’ just by the simplicity of implementing what is ‘good or bad’ … and starting with ourselves, acting from the standpoint of what is clearly right or wrong.

And what is clearly right or wrong is dictated by our conscience and the freedom we have in our power of choice.

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