This week, Jews around the world celebrate Passover, when we remember how God redeemed, delivered, and freed us from slavery in Egypt. I say ‘us’, not ‘our ancestors’, because we are told to imagine we were there too, experiencing the biblical story of the Exodus: once oppressed and now free.
This year, for many in the privileged west, imagining being freed is perhaps less of a stretch. As spring and sunlight return to the northern hemisphere and vaccinations gather pace, we feel the fear of disease decline, and the joy of easing restrictions on what we can do, who we can touch, and where we can go. We see the road to freedom ahead.
And yet, just as the story we tell on Passover ends at the first stage on the ancient Israelite’s road to freedom, with the prophet Miriam leading the people in song and dance on the far side of the Red Sea, so we too are very much at the beginning of our road to freedom. The difference is we are a lot less sure about whether our final destination will be the promised land.
So what else can we learn from the journey described in the Bible? Alongside redemption and freedom, we are told that we became the people of God. In other words, with freedom and rights came rules and responsibilities, such as following the 10 commandments and many more laws and codes. The biblical unwillingness to initially accept those rules and responsibilities condemned an entire generation to wander in the wilderness until the people who had known slavery were no longer in positions of leadership.
In modern times, not only can we not wait for a generation to pass to choose our direction, we also have yet to fully debate and describe the new responsibilities that are attached to the freedoms we think we are reclaiming.
I take my examples from the area of transport and mobility, where our freedom has been so restricted. We know that we should not, cannot simply return to our travel patterns of 2019. Nor do we necessarily want to, but who will take responsibility for what changes?
In the UK, there has been a 20% rise in people walking regularly. Do we have an individual responsibility to continue to walk more for our personal and public health? And whose responsibility is it to ensure safe, accessible environments in which to walk?
Alongside large increases in online ordering, support for local, independent retailers has grown. Do we as communities have a responsibility to continue to shop locally to help revitalise our neighbourhoods? And what other services do we need locally and how must space be organised to support that vitality – and our increased footfall?
Those with experience of working from home have quadrupled over the past year, with benefits from reducing the spread of disease to increased productivity and better work-life balance. Is it time for employers to take more responsibility for the time and energy dedicated to commuting – and how can they help employees avoid a return to the congested roads and overcrowded buses and trains of rush hours past?
Carbon emissions fell by an estimated 7% globally in 2020 – in large part due to a reduction in travel, both by road and air. Is it time for national and global organisations and businesses to take responsibility for preventing a rebound in emissions from long distance travel? And how can they also support those visiting loved ones spread far and wide, as well as all the innovation and inspiration that comes from working with, studying and exploring other cultures and places?
With freedom comes responsibility. If we, as individuals, communities, businesses, and governments do not take responsibility for and debate the rules we need to guide our post-pandemic freedom, we may well end up wandering in a wilderness instead.