THE FREEDOM CONUNDRUM
– TAKE TWO –
One year ago, this column took a look at the meaning of freedom. What better topic to thrash out during this glorious season of our own national freedom, when we were ushered from the darkness of bondage and idolatry into the sunlit fields of a relationship with Hashem and His holy Torah?
But a single look is never enough. That’s because, being human, we tend to find the notion of freedom a little perplexing.
We know that, as the Chosen People, we ought to feel on top of the world. By accepting the Torah, we stepped outside the constraints that bind and limit those who are not as fortunate as we are. We know that. At times, we even feel it. And yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, there are times when we feel very un-free. We stagger under the weight of our obligations. We chafe within the restrictions of our own personalities. We balk at the strictures of the society in which we find ourselves.
As with every other emotion, the ability to feel free rests on a foundation of the right kind of thoughts. You can’t feel like a free person if your thoughts are constantly tying your hands behind your back. You can’t soar with liberty if the chains of brooding obsession pull you insistently back to earth.
Let’s figure out how we can feel freer in the two most important areas of our lives: bein adam l’chaveiro and bein adam laMakom.
The reason, I think, why we so often feel boxed in is because of the way we view our circumstances. By “circumstances,” I include the people who share our lives. In our quest to get our needs met, we can fall into the trap of seeing other people as our competition. There is an invisible race taking place in which everyone around us is straining, just as we are, to get to the finish line and scoop up the prizes that lie waiting at the end.
When we relate to other people as competitors for the same slice of the pie, it’s no wonder that we are consumed with negative emotions such as envy, tension, hopeless longing and overwhelming resentment. Each time we fret over seeing another person enjoying something that we wish we had, there is a weakening of our ability to love them as we’re supposed to. Each time we perceive others as the winners in some vast, cosmic contest, our heart defines them as the enemy who has taken joy and pleasure away from us. None of this is necessarily logical. But then, feelings rarely are.
It is tiring to always be racing against other people, and it is exhausting to always be battling our circumstances. The strain of fighting an invisible enemy can wear a person down… and often does. If the strain continues long enough, it can squeeze us dry of our joy in life. We walk around feeling beleaguered. Victimized. At the low end of the totem pole and the wrong end of the stick.
Even worse, such an attitude can keep us from seeing the blessings in our circumstances. And it can prevent us from relating to others as anything but competitors for the love and joy and success that we need. We start viewing them not as people, but as objects. The objects of our jealousy or our rivalry or our yearning for approval.
Some people thrive on competition. Seeing those around them as contestants in some vast, human contest is exhilarating… up to a point. As long as they can measure themselves as superior to the rest, or at least on the same plane, they are content. But what happens if they don’t measure up? The disappointment can lead to all sorts of negative reactions. Reactions which make them feel like prisoners in a dark cell, banging their heads against an immovable wall.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can try to look at others differently. They are fellow travelers, each one burdened just as we are with her own particular set of baggage and aches and hopes. Instead of struggling with them, we can give to them. We can tap into our wells of compassion on their behalf. Because no one is exempt from needing a bit of compassion now and then.
And we can go a step further. Pirkei Avos offers a pearl that can turn the whole thing around.
Who is wise? He who learns from every person. Instead of viewing the people we meet as our competitors, we can regard them as our teachers. Because everyone, and I mean everyone, has something to teach us. Some trait, or behavior, or hard-won nugget of wisdom that we are in need of, and that we can take with us on our own journey.
When it comes to bein adam laMakom, there is no question of competition. Here, we face a different challenge.
“I have to daven,” we gasp as we run to shul. “I have to learn.” “I have to stop speaking lashon hara.” When we regard our spiritual obligations as a burden, is it any wonder that we derive little joy from them?
We’ve all heard about people who spend considerable time preparing for davening. It occurs to me that maybe the preparation involves remembering. Remembering that we chose to stand before Hakadosh Boruch Hu at Har Sinai and accepted His Law. That we chose to be His Chosen People. And that the process of choosing goes on, every single minute of every single day.
“I choose to daven now.” “I choose to learn Torah.” “I choose to refine my middos by not engaging in slander.” Such an attitude turns “I have to” into “I want to.” And that makes all the difference.
When we carry an unwilling burden, every pound feels like torture. When we carry a beloved child, although all those pounds may still be present we do not perceive them as negative. How can you resent what you cherish?
A child will sometime obey an order from an older sibling with a toss of his little head, declaring, “I’m doing it because I want to, not because you told me to!” Turning his obedience into a matter of his own preference and choice helps him climb the hurdle and get to the other side. When it comes to our grown-up spiritual obligations, the opposite is true: we undertake to do what we do because Hashem told us to. But that does not preclude our doing His mitzvos because we want to, as well. We want them because we know that they offer the best possible way live. How do we know? Because Hashem told us so.
I think the is a crucial thing to remember when raising our own generations is not simply to lay the burden of the mitzvos on our children, but also to explain why we do them and what a treasure they are for us. The youngsters may not get it at first, but the message will eventually sink in and color all of their subsequent choices. Truth has a way of doing that.
Perhaps the most important fact about human beings, and the one that differentiates us from all other creatures, is our free will. Strangely, though, we often seem to forget that. We allow ourselves to become mired in helpless emotion, to react with automatic reflex.
Each time we stop looking at other people as the competition, we are exercising our faculty of free choice. Each time we do what Hashem has commanded us to do, we are using the free will that He granted us. When you choose something, it becomes yours. The Torah that we obey now is the same Torah that we accepted after marching out of Egypt. Back then, we threw off the mantle of degrading slavery to don the royal cloak of Hashem’s servants and personal ambassadors to the world. Is it any different today?
It’s not. As the old song reminds us: “We’re Klal Yisroel, how lucky can you get?”
The more we remember that and keep choosing to be Klal Yisroel over and over and over again, the happier we will be.