Finding freedom

  • Rabbi Goldman
“Free at last, free at last, thank G-d Almighty, we are free at last!” Who said these words? No, it wasn’t Moses. It was American civil-rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King. But it could have been Moses, or for that matter any one of the millions of Jews who were liberated from Egyptian bondage.
by RABBI YOSSY GOLDMAN | Apr 18, 2019

Pesach recalls the great exodus. What was the almighty’s famous call to Pharaoh back in Egypt? “Let my people go that they may serve me!”

That divine message was transmitted by Moses to Pharaoh again and again in the drama that took place in the king’s court. Somehow, only the first four words of that message became world famous. All too often, we forget the rest of the sentence, “that they may serve me”.

Now, if the purpose of leaving Egypt and Pharaoh’s whip was to be able to serve G-d, we might ask where is the freedom? We are still slaves, only now we are servants of G-d instead of being servants of Pharaoh?

Indeed, countless individuals continue to question the merits of religion in general. Who wants to submit to the rigours of religion when we can be free spirits? Doesn’t religion stifle the imagination and stunt our creative style? Religion forever shouts instructions, and lays down the law. Thou shalt do this and thou shalt better not do that, or else! Do’s and don’ts, rules and regulations are the hallmark of every belief system. But why conform to any system at all? Why not just be me? These arguments have been heard for generations, but perhaps more so in our own time when freedom of thought is taken for granted.

Many Jews argue similarly. Mitzvahs cramp my style. Keeping kosher is a serious inconvenience. Shabbos really gets in the way of my weekend. And Pesach has got to be the biggest headache of the year.

But long ago, the rabbis of the Mishna said it was actually the other way around. There is no one as free as he who is occupied with the study of Torah. (Pirkei Avot 6,2). But how can this possibly be? The Torah is filled with rules of law, morality, ethics, and exhortations, even expectations that we take the high road and behave beyond the call of duty. How can the rabbis say that Torah makes us free? Surely it is inhibiting rather than liberating?

Let me share an answer I once heard on the radio while driving in my car. It was a BBC interview with Malcolm Muggeridge, the former editor of Punch, the satirical British magazine. Punch magazine was arguably England’s most irreverent publication. It mocked and ridiculed the royal family long before they did it to themselves. In his latter years, Muggeridge became religious, and the interviewer was questioning how this sultan of satire, the prince of Punch, could make such a radical transformation and become religious? How could he stifle such a magnificent free spirit?

Muggeridge’s answer was a classic, which I still quote regularly. He said he had a friend who was a famous yachtsman, an accomplished navigator of the high seas. A lesson he once gave him in sailing would provide the answer to the BBC man’s question. He taught him that if you want to enjoy the freedom of the high seas, you must first become a slave to the compass.

A young novice might challenge the experienced professional seaman’s advice. Why should I follow that little gadget? Why can’t I go where I please? It’s my yacht! But every intelligent person understands that without the navigational fix provided by the compass, we will flounder and end up sailing in circles. Only by following the lead of the compass will the wind catch our sails so we can experience the ecstasy and exhilaration of the high seas and actually get to our destination. Indeed, If you want to enjoy the freedom of the high seas, you must first become a slave to the compass.

The Torah is the compass of life. It provides our navigational fix, so we may know where to go and how to get there. Without the Torah’s guidance and direction, we would be lost in the often-stormy seas of confusion. Without a spiritual infrastructure, we flounder about, wandering aimlessly through life. It’s fine to have a job, a business, or a career, but what is my real purpose in life? Why am I here in the first place, and what is my life’s mission statement? Just look at our kids when they’re on holiday from school and “free” from the disciplines of the educational system. Unless they have a programme of some kind to keep them busy – like a summer camp – they become frustrated in their “freedom”.

Within the infrastructure of a Torah lifestyle, there is still ample room for spontaneity and freedom of expression. Not all rabbis are clones. To the untrained eye, every yeshiva bochur looks identical – a black hat, glasses, and a beard. The truth is that everyone is distinctive; an individual with his own tastes, attitudes, personality, and preferences. They may look the same, but each is unique.

We can be committed to the compass and still be free spirits. Indeed, there are none as free as they who are occupied with Torah.

  • Rabbi Yossy Goldman is the senior rabbi of Sydenham Shul, and president of the SA Rabbinical Association.


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