Phases of Freedom
Freedom from is not enough. It must be followed by freedom to.
Passover, the holiday of freedom has come and gone. Children, relatives and guests from near and far have returned to their respective homes. And, hopefully, we have settled back into our normal routines.
Our Sages advise us, however, that despite our having celebrated freedom, the work of setting ourselves free has just begun. Liberation from the bondage of Egypt, the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea and all the myriad attendant miracles were gifts from God to give us a glimpse of the potential -- a mere taste of freedom. But, the actualization -- the making of freedom a reality in our lives -- is up to each one of us. We have to earn it.
In effect, the Almighty said to us: "I took you out of bondage, removed your shackles, but that was just 'phase one' of freedom. True, ultimate freedom will be achieved only after you successfully master 'phase two' -- which means accepting the Torah, living by its precepts, and leading a decent, moral, and Divinely-mandated existence."
Towards this goal, as a newly born nation, we were advised that we would have 49 days, bridging Passover to Shavuot, to prepare ourselves for the awesome event of receiving the Torah that we celebrate on that holiday. Forty-nine days, wherein day by day, step by step, we would steadily elevate ourselves, ascending from one level to the next on the ladder of spiritual attainment so that when the 50th day would arrive we would be worthy beneficiaries of God's revelation.
Extricating one's self from self-imposed tyranny is but a necessary first step towards liberation.
Our sacred texts emphasize that this three-fold configuration -- Passover, the 49-day count of the Omer, and Shavuot -- comes to teach us an essential lesson in life. And the lesson is this: freedom from is not enough. It must be followed by freedom to. We learn that escaping oppression externally imposed, or, for that matter extricating one's self from tyranny that is self-imposed (such as an addiction), is but a necessary first step towards liberation.
If one, however, has merely fled subjection, but has not substituted a positive force in its place, it will just be a matter of time before one is again claimed by another form of bondage.
A NEW FORM OF BONDAGE
Nature abhors a vacuum. Consequently, the vacuum created by leaving Egypt must be replaced by a positive commitment to a higher authority and to Torah and its commandments.
As one psychotherapist put it, "we must replace the demon with an angel," otherwise, we revert back to a prior affliction or seek a new one in its place. Indeed, it is only when we simultaneously purge ourselves of the negative, while filling our lives with purpose and meaning, that we can begin to experience true freedom.
Some actual cases might best illustrate this principle.
Andrea, a mother of six, worked as a top executive for an accounting firm, and was considering leaving her job to become a fulltime homemaker. She called to ask my advice about her plans, commenting that this had been her dream ever since she got married. In addition she felt that it would force her husband, as the sole bread-winner, to become more responsible and ambitious.
I cautioned her that she needed to carefully think through how she would fill her days.
I thought that her reasoning was clear and compelling. I cautioned her, however, that she needed to sit down and carefully think through how she would fill her days. I suggested that she identify the pursuits she deemed respectable and desirable. I enumerated for her consideration: Torah learning, exercise classes, courses of study, quality time with her children, volunteering at their school, writing a book, and upgrading her spirituality with prayer and meditation. I further proposed that she needed to structure a plan of how her goals would become a reality. I tried to explain that extricating oneself from an unacceptable place can be liberating only if the void is filled by constructive and productive pursuits.
Another instance involved Marsha, a student of mine, who approached me with her desire to disabuse herself of the inclination to gossip and find fault with people. Jokingly she remarked that she had heretofore defended this practice by calling it "character analysis." She realized, however, as she matured religiously, that this was a mere rationalization. Marsha appealed to me to help her actualize her resolve.
In response, I immediately invoked this very principle: If she were to be successful, I asserted, she would need to replace her present negative practice with a positive one. Instead of gossiping, I recommended she spend five minutes on the phone with a friend reviewing the laws of acceptable and prohibited forms of speech. Or perhaps, when she felt the urge to deliver a juicy bit of gossip, that she lift the phone instead and show interest in a "shut-in." She would thus bring caring and sunshine to someone's life. I reminded her that eliminating the objectionable has staying power only if it is replaced by an act of virtue. As a foremost therapist argues, "You simply cannot banish a bad habit by an act of will, no matter how resolute. It requires coaxing it towards the door, while inviting an honorable and righteous guest to take its place."
MAKING EVERY DAY COUNT
This principle helps us understand the period of Sefirat HaOmer, counting of the Omer, the current countdown towards Shavuot, when we receive the Torah and ultimate liberation becomes possible. Everyday we mark off is a day closer to our goal. Not only is everyday counted but everyday must count. It has to be focused on improving ourselves, on reaching beyond where we are in character, learning, interacting, and in relating. We need to become, by dint of our own hard work, people of greater substance.
As such, this season highlights for us the crucial, significance of time. Daily, it asks of us:
- "How is today different from yesterday?"
- "In what way am I a changed and better person then I was a day ago?"
- "What am I striving to achieve when tomorrow comes?"
For Jews, the moments of our lives are our most precious and treasured possessions. The Kabbalah, the writings of Jewish mysticism, tell us that every moment of life cries out to us to fill it with meaning, because that meaning will define that moment and give it life. If that moment is wasted it will disappear for all of eternity.
"Killing time" is anathema to the Jew; it is a cardinal violation of the soul of our nation.
"Killing time," as it is popularly known in our culture, is anathema to the Jew, and particularly in this season, it is a cardinal violation of the soul of our nation.
Reassessing how we spend our time and rededicating ourselves to investing the moments of our lives appropriately will certainly bring us to the successful conclusion of the "countdown." Thereby we will be privileged to hear, as we did over 3000 years ago, the sounds of revelation which sanctified us as a nation at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Authentic and total freedom will, with renewed force and relevance, resonate in our lives once again.