Born Free?

May 9, 2009

10 min read


Quite the contrary. Learn how to choose freedom this Passover.

The day before my birthday, I had a furious fight with my husband Leib. In truth, we rarely argue, thanks to his calm and patient disposition. Leib is as tranquil as I am volatile, as mellow as I am quick-tempered. That day, however, realizing that our burgeoning overdraft allowed no money for him to take me out to dinner for my birthday, I found myself irately blaming him for our financial problems. I fired hurtful accusations that I never intended to utter. I was out of control.

It took an hour of working on myself to calm down, to change the inner tape, to realize the damage I had inflicted on the person I most love, and to ask forgiveness. Leib readily forgave me. We hugged and made up, but the distance I had created with my invectives hung between us like a foul smell. Despite Leib's loving birthday card and sweet homemade gift, it was a miserable evening.

The next day, like every year, we planned to celebrate my birthday by going on a family excursion to see the wildflowers. This year we planned to make the hour and a half drive across Israel to a hilltop near Rishon LeTzion where the rare argamon iris was in full bloom. As a special birthday dispensation, I asked Leib and my teenage daughter Pliyah to prepare the picnic lunch, so I would have extra time to pray my morning prayers at the Kotel (the Western Wall).

I was still despondent about my outburst the previous day. I felt both trapped in a place I didn't want to be and helpless to break out. Tshuva (repentance) in Judaism entails five steps, one of which is to take upon oneself not to repeat the sin. But how could I resolve not to lash out like that again when my hurtful words had tumbled out reflexively, without my conscious choice, almost beyond my control?

As I stood there praying beside the holy Wall, an idea occurred to me. From now on, whenever I was about to say anything charged to my husband, I would take the ring I wear on my right hand, transfer it to my left hand, then transfer it back to my right hand. During the time it would take me to do this, I would ask myself the question: Will what I am about to say distance me from my husband or draw me closer? Since I never want to be distant from my beloved husband, if the answer is, "distance," I would choose not to say it… even if it's true, even if it's justified. I would simply choose closeness.

Revitalized and happy with this new tactic, I left the Kotel and jumped into our car as Leib and the children drove past the Kotel plaza. We were off to see the wildflowers.

Not having eaten breakfast, I was hungry. "What food did you pack?" I asked them.

"I don't know," Leib responded. "You asked Pliyah to pack the lunch."

Pliyah was taken aback. "I only packed tuna sandwiches. I thought Abba was supposed to pack the rest -- the fruit and potato chips and cookies."

"Well, nobody told me anything about food," Leib answered dismissively.

I was about to say: "What? I certainly did tell you. I even told you where you could find the potato chips. Why don't you ever listen to me? Now what are we supposed to do with only half a lunch and no money to buy snacks? We'll all get hungry and cranky!"

As I sat there in my self-chosen silence, I experienced a feeling of exaltation and freedom.

That's what I wanted to say. Instead, I transferred my ring from my right hand to my left and back to my right while asking myself, "Will saying this distance me from my husband or draw us closer?" Clearly it would distance us, as mutual recriminations would give way to guilt and defensiveness and sweeping condemnations. So I kept my mouth shut.

That's when it happened. As I sat there in my self-chosen silence, I experienced a feeling of exaltation and freedom. I could do it! I could choose which course I wanted to follow according to where I wanted to end up. I was in control. I was free.


On Passover, every Jew is obligated to see himself or herself as if s/he personally had gone out of Egypt. This strains the imaginative powers of even the most imaginative of us. Back-breaking labor, massive bricks, the crack of the whip of the Egyptian taskmaster, the humiliations and torture of slavery are all so remote from our experience that, try as we may, the empirical sense of being enslaved eludes us. How, then, can each of us personally experience liberation from slavery? If we look carefully at the Torah's account of the Exodus, we see that slavery to Pharaoh is juxtaposed to service of God. To give one of many examples: "God said to Moses: 'Come to Pharaoh and speak to him, "So says God, the Lord of the Hebrews: 'Send out My people that they may serve Me.'" [Ex. 9:1]

The opposite of Egyptian bondage was not a libertine free-for-all. The objective and culmination of the Exodus was the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. God makes this clear the very first time He reveals Himself to Moses at the burning bush. "When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain." [Ex. 3:12]

The essential connection between freedom and Divine service is evident in the Hebrew calendar. From the second day of Passover, Jews begin counting 49 days until Shavuot, the holiday which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Shavuot is considered the culmination of Passover. Ultimate freedom, by the Torah's definition, means serving God.

This is surprising. The 613 commandments of the Torah are often regarded from the outside as 613 restrictions. How can they be synonymous with freedom?


According to cognitive psychology, all human actions are in response to an "inner tape" which plays non-stop in the human brain. This tape is most often recorded by heredity and environment. It tells us what to do, and, like automatons, we obey: "That person just insulted you. Insult him back!" "That driver just cut you off. Get angry!"

This is the Torah's definition of slavery. This is the voice of Pharaoh; it brooks no disobedience, nor does it even occur to us to disobey. There is no such thing as a bad slave, because a slave has no viable choices. For most of our waking hours, it does not even occur to us to disobey or change our inner tape.

In a world driven by the survival instinct and the pleasure principle, the Torah mandated an alternative way of life driven by holiness and spiritual values. The ethics of the Torah have become so imbued in Western civilization that we may not realize what a radical alternative they offered to ancient man -- and continue to offer to us today. As historian Paul Johnson notes:


Most law codes of the ancient Near East are property-oriented, people themselves being forms of property whose value can be assessed. The Mosaic code is God-oriented… In Mosaic theology, man is made in God's image, and so his life is not just valuable, it is sacred… Whereas other codes provided the death penalty for offences against property, such as looting during a fire, breaking into a house … , in the Mosaic law no property offence is capital. Human life is too sacred where the rights of property alone are violated…


The Mosaic laws were very strict in sexual matters. For instance, the Ugaritic laws, revealed in the Ras Shamra tablets, permitted fornication, adultery, bestiality and incest in certain circumstances. The Hittites would allow some forms of bestiality (though not incest). The Egyptians regarded consanguinity as relatively unimportant. The Israelites, by contrast, banned all irregular forms of sex, and they had a list of forbidden degrees of marriage, including affinity as well as consanguinity. [A History of the Jews, pp. 33-36]


With the giving of the Torah, a human being was no longer a slave to the imperatives of his/her sexual desires. A second voice -- the Divine voice -- mandated a different, sacred course of action. The human being was free to choose. The exercise of choice itself is freedom.

That freedom entails choice is obvious when we observe the elections held in countries ruled by dictators. All the accoutrements of free elections are there, such as voting booths and secret ballots. But if only one candidate is running, the election is clearly not “free.” Freedom requires choice.

When God gave the Jewish people the Torah, He gave us 613 choices. Observe Shabbat or not. Love your neighbor or not. Gossip or not. Unlike Pharaoh, God, as you might have noticed, brooks a great deal of disobedience. That's why a person who violates a Divine commandment is not struck by lightening. Immediate punishment would limit our freedom of choice. The ability to make moral choices is a Divine gift. It's the only true freedom humans have.

The key phrase here is "moral choice." Your decision whether to go to the movies or a ballet tonight, or whether to eat vanilla or chocolate ice cream is not an exercise of free will. Since there is no moral element present, they are mere preferences, not choices.

The very act of choosing between your knee-jerk response and the Divine imperative to be kind is freedom.

Only in the moral realm do you have free choice. When your inner tape says to give tit for tat, to respond to an insult with an even more lethal barb, you have the power to change the tape. You have the power to ask yourself, "Is this who I really want to be?" The very act of choosing between your knee-jerk response and the Divine imperative to be kind is freedom.

Each of us at every moment is heeding the voice of Pharaoh or the voice of God. The voice of Pharaoh commands us to do what is instinctive, automatic, reflexive. "Doing what comes naturally," is ultimate bondage because we exercise no power of choice.

The voice of God, on the other hand, offers an alternative to instinct. For example, by commanding us not to take revenge [Lev. 19:18], God in effect is saying: "Your instinct is to hurt those who hurt you. By commanding you to act otherwise, I'm offering you the ability to choose a different course."

The exercise of choice is the essence of freedom. Forget the taskmaster's whip and the massive bricks. Each of us is enslaved every time we act on automatic pilot, every time we react according to our instinctual programming.

To experience liberation this Passover, we need only to break the bonds of instinct, to learn to deliberate and decide what we shall do or what we shall say, based on who we want to become -- a slave of Pharaoh or a servant of God.

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