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 us, since we may not hear. For us to hear, we must come closer. But we may decide to keep our distance, living our lives 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 us and will not let us go. The Mishna often uses an illuminating expression. When describing one who has not yet done his duty, it uses the phrase: Lo yatza yedei chovato, “He has not yet left the hands of his obligation.” In Judaism, our duties are not “long distance calls”. Rather, they hold us in their grasp, and only when we have lived up to our duty can we claim to be free. It is the refusal to do one’s duty that casts us 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, we do not live fully; we merely exist without experiencing the seasons in our souls.
Surely we must hear the music of our obligations and realize the privilege of being charged with a sense of duty. We must simultaneously be aware that by restraining ourselves, we prove that we are not hostage to our own desires, but the master who rises above our limitations. We need to know what we are free from, to daily experience this freedom and, above all, to know how to use it.
“Der Beschraenkung zeigt sich erst der Meister und das Gesetz nur kan uns freiheit geben.” (“Only through his limitations does the master really prove himself. And only the law can provide us with freedom.”) (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. (Pirkei Avot, 6:2)
(1) From the Sonnet: Was wir bringen.