November 16, 2018

Live Free — Shabbat HaGadol (Shabbat Before Pesach)

Live Free

– Shabbat Thought for Shabbat Ha-Gadol

Here is the bad news: what the Jewish tradition means by “freedom” and what we mean by “freedom” are two different things. When we think of freedom, we think of freedom from government interference in our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We think of freedom from unreasonable coercion and restrictions. We think of voting for our government and freedom of expression.

Passover is referred to “z’man heiruteinu” – “the time of our freedom.”  Essentially, this meant freedom from the tyranny of Pharaoh, so that would be able to serve God. Serving God includes the moral commandments, often the focus on liberal Judaism, and the ritual commandments, often the focus of more traditional Jews. Neither group, I would stress, neglects the other kind of commandments. Just each one tends to stress the either the moral side (commandments between one person and another) and the other, the ritual side (commandments between a person and God.

Neither group would say we are free, in some kind of metaphysical sense, to violate the law. A liberal Jew, who focuses on moral responsibility, would not say you are free to discriminate in employment, even if within the law. An Orthodox Jew would certainly not say that you are free to break the laws of the Sabbath. Of course, you are politically free to do so in America, but you are not free, in some metaphysical sense.  Metaphysically, you are obligated.
Judaism is essentially a system of obligations, not rights. Judaism, from its traditional sources, can certainly accommodate the modern liberal state (liberal, in the sense of the focus on liberties), but its focus, nevertheless, is on obligations, not freedom as liberty.

So why does the tradition call it “freedom’?    First, the obvious.  If you lived under an oppressive regime, hostile to Judaism, you would certainly know what freedom meant. And not just oppressive regimes; Jews in France, for example, don’t feel free to wear a Magen David necklace. But here in America, we truly are free to practice Judaism as we see fit and wear a Jewish necklace (some college campuses notwithstanding). In other words, we are free to fulfill our obligations, and practice Judaism as we wisht.  Here in America, we are little concerned with the freedom to worship. Our concern, therefore, should be freedom from inner forces that prevent us from growing toward wholeness.

The good news is that the idea of spiritual freedom is essential for understanding Jewish spirituality.  Think about acting in anger, resentment, and holding grudges. Think about acting reactively and defensively, where feelings and emotions govern negative behavior. Think about acting from fear. Think about favoring someone because you feel sorry for them, not based on any rational thought. Think about losing empathy for someone. Think about deciding not to fulfill a promise.  Look around you. Do you know anyone who is free? We are free politically.  And spiritually and morally, we are free in many areas of our lives to fulfill our obligations. And in other areas, we are not free at all.

One reason I am glad to be in America is because here we have the incredible good fortune to focus on the inner Pharaoh. I have seen more relationships ruined, families torn apart, friendships ended, by anger, criticism, complaining, condemning, conflict and defensiveness that anything that Bush or Obama ever did. I have counseled both Bush haters and Obama haters. My advice to them is to schedule the hatred for about 15 minutes a day. The rest of your free thinking time, instead of nursing anger and hatred, coax moral qualities to the forefront. Focus on being a morally better spouse, partner, and friend. Let go of anger, raging, criticizing, complaining, condemning, accusing, blaming, labeling and defensiveness. Anything to be worked out can usually be worked our mindfully, kindly or assertively, as the case may be. Act on your political commitments, but also be clear about and act on your moral and spiritual commitments, as well.

Let go of that stuff, and breathe. Feel the freedom.