It’s THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN. You are probably scratching your heads trying to figure out what I can possibly mean. There is no holiday coming up until Purim. Yes, TuBShvat is around the corner, but how early to I have to begin thinking about the Rosh Hashanah of ……the trees?
The time that I am referring to is Shovavim. This word is an acronym for the series of Parshas that will be read in the next six weeks (Shmos Vaeirah Bo, Bishalach, Yisro, Mishpatim). They are the ones that narrate our emergence as a people, beginning with the story of the enslavement and the beginnings of the exodus, and ending with the laws of Hashem’s justice that set us apart as people. It’s a time in which the national journey is meant to be reflected in making a personal journey towards greater freedom.
As of last reading you were comfortably ensconced in your chair, trying your best to balance your life and hopefully enjoying most of the process of being alive. Do you need or want greater freedom If you are living a highly structured life, does that mean quitting your job/marriage/kids/other responsibilities that you have worked hard for? I can’t imagine that your secret fantasy is to get up in the morning (or whenever) with endless time stretching out before you, with nothing to do, no one to talk to, and nothing likely to change. “Man is made to toil” if you haven’t noticed, and this verse (from Mishlei) is unquestionably true. From that perspective, who really wants more freedom?
You may want to free yourself of….yourself!
If you are like me, there is a self you want to be, and a self you actually are. They live together in uneasy peace. What keeps them apart? Slavery to desire, habit, and fears are slave-masters. They keep you enslaved to your self. Not the self you want to be, or even the self you are, but the self that lurks under the surface and pulls you down towards the self that you never ever want to be.
No one is more enslaved than a baby. On the surface he is free, he can do whatever he wants, and no one can tell him otherwise. He is enslaved to his limitations needs and desires. He can’t make real choices and isn’t in charge of himself. If anything, a two-year-old throwing a tantrum is even less of a free person. His temper, (and yes, again) desires are all he knows.
Being free ultimately means being able to find the part of you that is eternal. That part of you is even free of the inevitable fate of all of us, death itself. One of the illusions that you may have is that good deeds are over when they are over. This may be true on a simple level (the wallet you returned to the stranger is now safely in his pocket. End of story), but in the more genuine schema it isn’t. The good in any deed is a spark of something eternal. When you choose good over The Other Stuff, what you are really doing is choosing eternity over transience. All the fantasy, fear, base desires, selfishness that is hidden (thankfully) below the surface is doomed to oblivion. There is nothing within them that binds them to Hashem.
The Tzadikim are free. They are who they want to be. No matter what is happening on the outside, they have a self that is unchained.
When I graduated high school, the school gave the girls a book called Bastion of Faith as a gift. It was a story about one of the men I consider to have achieved a great deal of personal freedom He was the person he wanted to be under all circumstances. Many of you have heard of him, and possibly also heard this story. He was one of the greatest authorities on Jewish law in his time. His name was Rav Moshe Feinstein. He knew that ignorance enslaves. This awareness drove him to do battle with ignorance by becoming the head of one of America’s first yeshivos. He knew that assimilation robs you of your identity. He did battle against the assimilationist reality of his times, a reality that chained so many of your great grandparents to the dream of being anyone except who they are. Rav Feinstein went door to door collecting money to build a mikveh for the women of his Lower East Side community who wanted to still be themselves, freely and without apology. This commitment included building people. Once when he was driven by car, his driver opened the door to let him in and accidently closed it on his hand. He knew that the young man would be devastated, so he remained silent until he reached his destination and freed his hand from the door. No force, not social convention, status, or even his own body could force him into subservience.
Does the exodus story inspire you? Let it put you in touch with yourself. You have the Torah that you learned inside, telling you what the choices really are. You have the freedom to choose your environment. You have the freedom to make your life the kind of life you dreamed of in Yerushalaim no matter where you are today. You are strong enough to do it.
I wish I was really free
Like the Rav
Like Yocheved was when she stood up to Pharaoh
Like Pharaoh’s daughter was when she stretched her hand
To save a child of a despised people
Free. like the person I could be.