In “Me and Bobby McGee,” the famous blues/rock song popularized by Janis Joplin, the narrator expresses a romantic view of freedom that has become definitive for many of us. Maybe age has taken its toll on me, but now I see that beautiful song in a whole new light.
I see it now not as an anthem of freedom, but as a sad song about despondency and loneliness, as the singer’s vision of liberty quickly moves from romantic to pathetic, and from exhilarating to meaningless. And when I think of Shavuot, I reflect that this iconic song’s view of freedom is radically different than the one Judaism proposes.
Wearing faded jeans and singing the blues, Janis (in my mind I will always associate the song’s perspective with Janis Joplin, even though she didn’t write the song and wasn’t the first to perform it) and Bobby McGee ride from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and then embark in aimless wandering “from the Kentucky coal mines to the California sun”. They have no direction, they just enjoy the moment in perfect freedom. Liberated because they are completely untethered, for them “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”.
But that’s why their adventure is doomed to fail. What they don’t understand is that freedom and meaning are intimately linked.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin speaks about negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty is the absence of constraints. Positive liberty goes one step further by using that lack of constraints to take action for a purpose. Liberation is just the point of departure; the destination is a transformative vision of the world. Jewish wisdom saw the difference before Berlin put it into elegant philosophical terms: in Hebrew, there are two words for “freedom”, hofesh and herut. Hofesh is freedom from; herut is “freedom to”.
Hofesh can’t endure unless it leads to herut. Janis and Bobby fail because they don’t run to, they run from. Their freedom that has “nothin’ left to lose” is, by definition, dispossessed of everything that means and matters most. True freedom is the capacity to realize a dream. A dream is a risk, because it creates the possibility of success or failure; with true freedom there is always much left to lose, and also much left to gain.
That may be the main message of Shavuot, the holiday in which we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. When the ancient Hebrews left Egypt, they could have wondered aimlessly like Janis and Bobby, with no masters, no land, no responsibilities, no mission, and “nothin’ left to lose.” Instead our tradition understood that the Festival of Freedom—Passover—needed to be incorporated into a single entity with the Festival of the Torah, when we receive not just law but also a framework for a meaningful life. Indeed, the Omer—the 49 days that we count between the two holidays—is the representation of that unity. Passover is only a first step in a journey that will lead us to Sinai. We left Egypt not merely to be free from slavery, but to build a society based on justice, peace, and compassion. Freedom is the tool that will enable us to take responsibility, to cease being powerless victims and to become agents of change and hope. Liberty is, for us, a commitment.
Janis sings that “feeling good was good enough for me… and my Bobby McGee”. But in truth it wasn’t. Bobby ends up leaving and Janis is left alone singing the blues. Bobby never finds meaning, because he just pursues the insouciance of feeling good in the moment. He is probably still out there, roaming the country in his faded jeans. He is a pathetic caricature of freedom, because he doesn’t want responsibilities to others, nor the encumbrance of a mission. “Feeling good was easy”, Janis laments, and she wants to convince herself that it was enough. But perhaps she knows it wasn’t. Perhaps that’s why she “let him slip away”.
Our society is, more than ever, built around the idea of feeling good. We convince ourselves that pleasure is all we need. #YOLO (you only live once), “Live in the moment,” and so on. But that same society struggles with lack of meaning and suffers the collapse of mutual responsibility. Like Bobby, we have no place for the other, for her ideas and her hopes, for the disconcerting presence of other human beings in all their complexity. We live in a time of sovereign selves that are free and empowered, but feel lonely and rudderless in an indifferent world, unable to see that it is only through what we do for others that we gain a sense of self.
Meaning and togetherness are inextricably linked. Shavuot is one of the shalosh regalim, the three holidays of pilgrimage in which the People of Israel used to gather in Jerusalem. Our journey is not a solitary one, but one that we share with our people. This is reflected in one of the central themes of the Book of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot: love. Reading the Book of Ruth, we see Ruth’s overwhelming love for Naomi, their shared love for the land and people of Israel, and the intensely meaningful love between Ruth and Boaz, from which the very messiah will descend. Serving our people and healing the world is what make our freedom relevant. Without the kind of love that draws us into service and sacrifice, freedom is a meaningless exercise in hedonism, an aimless ride across the steppes of loneliness.
As funders we enjoy great freedom, maybe more than others in our society. So we need to be constantly vigilant not to end up like Janis Joplin’s character and Bobby McGee. We need to realize that binding our absolute freedom within a mission is necessary, not just for the greater good, but for our own ability to find meaning in our lives. Leaving space in our hearts for the other does limit our possibilities, but it also gives us a purpose and a reason to live. Through our commitments to others, our lives are no longer a mere biological accident, but journeys with destinations. We can choose to leave without a trace, like Bobby disappearing under the California sun, or we can reach the true freedom of making a difference in the world around us.
Between now and Shavuot, as we finish counting the days of the Omer one by one, let’s make sure that every day is an opportunity for meaning, a meaning that can only be found in helping others and by committing to causes that are greater than ourselves. As diligently as we count these days, let’s make sure that every day counts.