Sometimes it feels as though the Jewish calendar is spinning on its own orbit, out of sync with what’s happening on Earth. We’re trapped in our homes, isolated and quarantined, transmitting electronic versions of ourselves to loved ones and friends, both desperate for and terrified of human contact. Yet, somehow, it’s time to talk about freedom, for Passover is here.
Passover – The mighty festival of freedom. It’s the celebration of the Jewish people’s transition from slavery and destitution to self-determination. The journey and escape from Egypt to the promised land. The story evokes images of open spaces, of great desert expanses, the rush of the splitting waters, the promise, the betrayal, the miracles, the plagues. A sensory overload of rich experience, fertile ground for the collective imaginings of a people, a springboard for visions of the future and reflections on the past. But this year, things are a little different. How can we speak of freedom during a global pandemic?
In times of crisis, sometimes the oldest sources prove the wisest. It was Plato who first provided a significant account of how freedom operates. He rejected the notion that freedom was as simple as being able to do whatever you wanted, with nothing standing in your way. The freedom to, say, find out what happens if you try wearing a bees’ nest as a hat wasn’t so interesting for the old philosopher. For Plato, the path to freedom involves becoming better at making the right choices, not just any choices. Accordingly, Plato consistently links understanding with notions of autonomy and freedom. The idea roughly goes: the more you understand, the freer you become, or the more you know about bees, the less likely you are to stick your head in a bees’ nest.
This advice is actually quite clarifying for us in a world rapidly approaching technological maturity. We are, as a species, morphing into a single interconnected system. Our news feeds are cluttered with more information than we could ever process, our brains are undergoing a kind of never-ending shock therapy, exposed to literally billions of inputs, desires, images, ideas and opinions. What we see before us is a great infinity: an impossible multitude of choice and comparison, and we have grafted this reality onto our own psyches – we understand identity to be uncertain and ever-changing, as are our communities, nationalities, ideals and even facts. In this context, Plato’s meaning becomes clear: when faced with uncertainty, the freedom to make any particular choice does not liberate us. In fact, we might as well be running around lost in a maze. Liberation, and true freedom comes from understanding which choices we ought to make to best improve our position when facing adversity.
It is then, worthwhile for us to think about how Plato would view the COVID-19 crisis in terms of our collective freedom as a civilization. It is worth remembering that the Black Death killed between 75 and 200 million people – or 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s total population. Why was it so devastating? Because medieval understandings of medicine, infections and how they spread were almost nonexistent. Bogus theories of “bad air” circulated while hygiene was terrible, water was dirty, and nobody washed their hands. People were free to roam the streets, shake each other’s hands, hug and embrace, but ultimately still fell victim to the invisible pathogen.
We have come a long way since the Middle Ages. China first became aware of the new kind of coronavirus on 31 December, 2019 – and roughly two weeks later we had successfully modelled its entire atomic structure. By 21 February, scientists had isolated the virus’s “key,” known as a spike protein, which it uses to enter human cells. This information is crucial for the development of a future vaccine or other treatment. In addition to constant scientific breakthroughs surrounding the virus, we have understood how the virus transmits, how to best prevent its spread, and have taken swift action worldwide to flatten the curve, and stop the virus multiplying at an uncontrollable pace.
While the coronavirus is indeed a terrible crisis, choking economies and overloading health systems the world over, we are as a species making many of the right choices to fight it. Many nations waited too long, and results will be devastating, but all is definitely not lost. It is likely, in fact, that Plato would view the extensive lockdown measures and infection control practices that have gone into effect across the globe as an expression of a very advanced kind of human freedom. Why? Because we are wise enough to do this to ourselves voluntarily. We understand things better than we ever have before, and are therefore equipped to overcome this foe.
It’s not going to be an easy seder. It will be small, intimate, and less lavish than last year’s. We will remain cut off from our extended families, but we will prepare for Passover as well as we can. Locking ourselves in our homes is most definitely a strange and rather unsatisfying use of our freedom, but also a potential source of hope and pride. For the scale of the action taken by humanity in this time of crisis is most definitely a sign of our collective wisdom, our understanding, and of our freedom.