Passover starts Monday evening, the great celebration of liberation from bondage, both literal and figurative. For the first seder—the ritual meal of symbolic foods that accompanies the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt—I will be with friends whose lives are dedicated to progressive politics. I expect that in the telling, there will be many parallels between the slaves’ escape from Pharaoh and present-day oppressions.
On the second night, instead of a seder, I will share a less-structured meal with friends. During the Passover week, the food we eat will be free of chametz—leavened foods, symbolic of whatever is puffed-up with pride or ego or clogged with resistance in our own selves and societies. And the spiritual nourishment we consume will be meditation and the sharing of teachings on freedom. So I’ve been thinking about what I have to say on the subject.
I’ve just returned from a week or so of traveling, giving talks and taking part in meetings with colleagues across the country. It’s been a hugely interesting and satisfying experience for me, because the messages I’ve been carrying, about defining and asserting an expansive public interest in art and culture, have seemed to be what people now need to hear. It feels wonderful to be told that my work is inspiring. Counteracting the temptation to become puffed-up with it isn’t too hard, because I know there is a long distance to travel between the message that ignites desire for change and actualizing the change one desires.
Have you ever looked at a map of the small-scale territory the escaped slaves traversed in their forty-year journey to the promised land? “Running around in circles” would not be much of an exaggeration. One teaching that makes great sense to me is that it was necessary to delay their arrival until the generation imbued with slave-consciousness had died out, so that upon attaining a place where it was possible to live in liberty, their descendants would be capable of acting as free people.
On Passover, we are asked to retell the story of liberation as if we had ourselves escaped from Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, which is very near to the word for “straits” or “narrow places.” The outward Exodus is seen to symbolize the inner journey out of whatever binds and pinches, whatever holds us back from the realization of our potential, from the exercise of our freedom.
For some time now, when I am called upon to give a talk or write an essay, I have been challenging myself to unzip any feeling of constraint to speak my own truth in my own voice. This has been a remarkable experience for me: many times, I have anticipated that what I have to say will trigger passionate opposition, the kind that shuts people’s ears. Of course, it’s not as if the whole world agrees with me; reasonable people hold all sorts of views. But the more I have allowed myself to express a coherence of inner and outer realities, the more I have showed up as myself, the more people have opened in generosity to what I have to say.
This is an important lesson to me, that the greatest impediment to internal freedom is an outer shell, a persona that fits too tightly, that pinches in important places, with the result that you find yourself speaking words, taking actions, offering gestures which you know to be false. Of course, the world invites this, constantly. If someone approaches me after a talk, on the one hand offering a positive response, and on the other hand seeking agreement with a particular viewpoint, the temptation to nod and say yes is extremely powerful. It takes conscious choice to stop and consider, to condition a response on an inner sense of truth, and to risk making someone who has just said something very nice to me reconsider whether he or she really means it.
Since the topic of many of these conversations is politics, I seem to be involved in a perpetual (if informal) survey of the regard in which my fellow artists and activists hold the actually existing exemplars of our democratic system. It will be unsurprising that the most common criticism of politicians is the false personae so many of them wear, the way they clothe their messages in coded words and concepts that conceal their true nature. To the extent that we believe the system to be conditioned on lies, democracy is always in peril.
Seeking the freedom that amounts to congruence between inner and outer realities doesn’t guarantee that one’s positions will be coherent or true or right by any particular standard. As Isaiah Berlin wrote in his great 1958 essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” “Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.” But they will be freely chosen, which matters a great deal.
This freedom we are given to reject the constraints that keep our essence and persona from coming into alignment and focus is both social and personal. We are coping with daunting economic, social, cultural, and environmental injustice in this country. Yet still, because we can preserve Constitutional freedoms with our intentions and actions, because we can seek and stand up for human rights and the obligations they entail—still, despite formidable countervailing forces, to a remarkable extent, we have the scope to exercise our liberty in freely chosen outward actions.
It’s the inner imposition that still seems most powerful. It amazes me how often I hear people whose work is the expression and communication of deep knowledge—artists, teachers, spiritual leaders—say that they cannot be themselves, they cannot speak their truth, they cannot reveal their feelings, because they feel constrained by others’ expectations. To be sure, there are plenty of rules we must all follow: consideration for our fellow human beings’ feelings, no “Fire!” in crowded places, and so on. But it remains true that censorship is the element of public policy most fully decentralized in this country. So many of us self-censor in anticipation of disapproval that mostly, the inner Pharaoh does the job: there is no need for the heavy hand of the state.
So whether or not you celebrate Passover, please accept my blessings for a season of liberation, the kind that allows all of us to slough off the carapace of a constricting persona, the freedom to choose our own words and actions, and the obligation to demand the same of those who hold our democracy in trust.