Sitting in our ulpan class last week, we suddenly heard a commotion outside. Looking out the window, we saw people blocking traffic while singing and holding signs proclaiming asserting their right to “freedom.”
In last week’s parshah, we read that the words of Hashem were charus – engraved – on tablets of stone. In Pirkei Avos (6:2), we learn that the word should be read with different vowels, not as charus – engraved, but as cheirus – freedom, for “there is no free person other than one who is engaged in Torah.” Freedom is only real if it goes hand in hand with following the values of Torah.
Among those values are the rule of law, which sets the parameters within which we can exercise our rights – and personal responsibility, which means that we have the responsibility to provide for ourselves and our families and that we are accountable for our actions. Communal responsibility is at the heart of the concept that “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba’zeh – all Jews are responsible for each other” (Sh’vuos 39a). When Hillel (Shabbos 31a) was asked to sum up the entire Torah while standing on one foot, he replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
A society in which everyone has the right to do as one pleases, unbounded by the rule of law, personal responsibility, accountability, communal responsibility, and sensitivity towards others, is a society in which the rights of all are at risk.
This concept can be found in other societies, as well. The enlightenment philosophers of the 18th Century wrote that man originally lived in a state of nature in which it was every person for himself. Life in the words of Thomas Hobbes was “lonely, nasty, brutish, and short.” John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and others wrote that we gain rights by giving up some of our freedoms, in order to respect and defend the rights of others.
This concept is basic to the founding of the United States. The Declaration of Independence famously proclaims our right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” while saying “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”
Rabbi Chanina, the Deputy Kohen Gadol (Avos 3:2) may well have said it best: “Pray for the welfare of the ruling authorities, because if it were not for the fear of them, a person would swallow his fellow person alive.”
Government that enforces the rule of law to protect the rights of all is essential. But government that goes too far in imposing rules and regulations can easily become repressive.
In a republic like Israel or the United States, we have the right to choose the representatives and officials who make the laws that govern us. Free and open debate about what those laws should be are the essence of democracy. The right to protest and demonstrate is one of our most basic freedoms. To misuse that right by trampling on the rights of others, undermines the freedom of all of us.
To be clear, everyone, no matter how noble or despicable their cause – from woke activists to Black Lives Matter protesters to Trump supporters and opponents of mask and vaccine mandates – has the right to protest and demonstrate. No one has the right to break windows, loot, set fires, ransack the US Capitol building, block traffic, or honk horns at all hours of the night or to endanger the health and safety of others.
According to Pirkei Avos (5:10), the one who says, “What’s mine is mine and what is yours is yours is a commonplace type.” While others say that “This is the measure of Sodom.” The principle “What’s mine is mine and what is yours” applied properly means personal responsibility, the right to pursue our own destinies while respecting rights of others. It is a concept that allows civil society to thrive. When the concept is perverted to proclaim that I have the right to do as I please with reckless disregard and contempt for the rights of others, it is the way of Sodom.