Written bechipazon, in haste
Nothing is more dangerous to the well-being of the human species than the mistaken notion of freedom. Today, freedom is defined as the ability to do whatever one wants. Entire generations have been thrown into a life of meaninglessness, passivity and boredom in the name of this artificial freedom. It wreaks havoc on many fine souls who no longer have a sense of what they are living for. After all, a life with no mission and commitment is not worth living.
Even in the religious community we find many youngsters who observe the commandments by rote because of social pressure or fear of punishment. They dream of freedom, of liberating themselves from their many obligations. Yet, they are unaware that these very obligations are the manifestations of genuine freedom, and a life with no boundaries is a life of confinement.
It is remarkable that Pesach, the Jewish festival of freedom, is associated with so many restrictions and obligations. All forms of chametz, leaven, are forbidden to be in one’s possession, and even a crumb becomes an issue. The precise rituals to be followed on the Seder night, when Jews celebrate their freedom, are painstaking and even grueling for the modern, carefree soul. What kind of freedom are Jews celebrating on the very evening of their forefathers’ departure from Egypt? A life of even more restrictions?
When speaking of obligation, people say, “My duty calls me.” The metaphor is clear: a duty calls. It is far removed and needs to call man since he may not hear. For man to hear, he must come closer. But he may decide to keep his distance, living his life free of duty.
This is not the case in the Hebrew language, which expresses the concept of obligation very differently. In its world view, duty has arms that embrace man and will not let him go. The Mishna often uses an illuminating expression. When describing a man who has not yet done his duty, it states: Lo yatza yedei chovato, “He has not yet left the hands of his obligation.” In Judaism, man’s duties are not long distance calls. Rather, they hold man in their grasp, and only when he has lived up to his duty can he claim to be free. It is the refusal to do one’s duty that casts man into confinement.
Judaism is the art of making a problem out of every solution. It correctly believes that what is taken for granted is boring; it does not get our attention and therefore has no significance. Only when we see something as a challenge and give it thought do we come alive. A sense of duty reflects awareness that the trivial is critical. There is no growth except in the fulfillment of one’s duty. Without it, man does not live fully; he merely exists but does not experience the seasons in his soul.
Surely man must hear the music of his obligation and realize the privilege of being charged with a sense of duty. He must simultaneously be aware that by containing himself he proves to be not the victim of his own desires but the master who rises above his limitations. He needs to know what he is free from, to daily experience this freedom and, above all, to know how to use it.
“In der Beschraenkung zeigt sich erst der Meister und das Gesetz nur kan uns freiheit geben. ” (1) said Johann Wolfgang Goethe, expressing a fundamental Jewish concept: A man is never more free than when he is involved in a life of Torah. (Pirkay Avot, 6:2)
(1) “Only through his limitations does the master really prove himself. And only the law can provide us with freedom.” Sonnet: Was wir bringen.