The Sages declare: "There is no free person except one who is immersed in Torah."
What type of religious double-talk is this?! Here in America and the West, the "land of the free," we have options like never before. Free speech. Free press. Free market economy. So what does freedom have to do with Torah or religion? If anything, doesn't religion restrict freedom?
Indeed, detractors of Judaism take issue with the numerous commandments: they constrict freedom, are a burden, and make life overbearing. God wouldn't really want humans to live that way, would He?
Imagine you have the opportunity to enter Fort Knox for one hour to grab all the gold you can. The only condition is that you have to first walk through a magnificent amusement park, a veritable Disneyworld, which is directly adjacent to the entrance of the Fort. "No problem," you think to yourself. "It will take me 10 -- maximum 15 -- minutes to walk through the park. I'll have plenty of time left to take all the gold I will ever need!"
The hour begins. Since there is so much time, you relax for a few moments to take in the sights: fantastic props, dazzling rides, throngs of excited people, snacks, food, fountains and more.
You quickly lose yourself amidst all the fascinating amusements. A half-hour goes by. Forty minutes. Fifty minutes. Fifty-five. Fifty-nine minutes go by, and suddenly you remember: The hour is almost up!
As the sixtieth minute strikes, the gates of Fort Knox unceremoniously close in your face.
Our world is a Disney World. It possesses the potential for untold spiritual wealth. Yet this wealth is situated amidst a fantasy park of sideshows and distractions. Indeed, they possess a special attraction and beauty. But they draw us away from the opportunity of acquiring true wealth.
Spending one's life at Disney World is not "freedom;" it is an abuse of freedom. If we abuse our freedom and attach ourselves to things of an exclusively physical, temporary nature, we lose the freedom needed to achieve the very purpose for which we were placed here: to become closer to God by being more like God.
Wings of the Dove
The story is told about the first dove. It was created wingless and complained bitterly to God. "I have no teeth or paws to defend myself. I'm small and can't even flee from prey on these two skinny legs. The way you made me is so unfair."
God heard its plea and declared, "Okay, I will compensate you."
Shortly thereafter, the dove returned and complained even more bitterly. "It was bad enough before you 'compensated' me, but now I have these two large clumps on my back. They only add more weight, and make it harder for me to run away!"
To the uninformed, mitzvot may seem like an unwieldy burden when, in fact, they are what enable our souls to fly.
"You don't understand," God replied. "Those clumps are wings. Spread them and you will fly."
The Talmud calls mitzvot the wings of a dove.
To the uninformed, mitzvot may seem like added weight, an unwieldy burden. Who needs to be told every minute another thing to do? And does God really care about our every little act?
In actuality, the mitzvot are what enable our souls to fly. They help protect, create and perpetuate our connection to God in this world. Each commandment, in its own way, teaches us how to manifest Godly reality in our lives -- how to refrain from that which numbs us to His presence, and how to participate in that which brings Him out from behind the murky shadows of our mundane activities.
The Torah's negative commandments -- the "Thou shall not's -- are mechanisms of freedom. They help us unshackle ourselves from the strong undertow of distracting sideshows. Once freed from these distractions, the positive commandments -- the "Thou shall's -- direct us to the spiritual wealth inherent in each waking moment.
Liberty vs. Freedom
Liberty is not the same as freedom. Liberty provides the right to vote, the right to due process of the law, the right to hold unpopular views without fear of retribution.
Yet freedom is even greater. Freedom is not restricted to externals, like government or powerful individuals. Freedom is internal power. Thus you can have a situation where many people are not free, despite the fact that they live in a land of liberty. Their souls are in prison.
How many people do we know, and how many stories have we heard, of well-intentioned people who end up enslaved to their careers, who give up everything to acquire a faster car and larger home, only in the end to find that they have neglected their children, their marriage, their very selves?
Viktor Frankel, a survivor of the concentration camps, wrote in his seminal, Man's Search For Meaning: "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitudes in any given set of circumstances."
In the camp, stripped of every material and moral cover, Frankel demonstrated that those who were struck by the revelation that no one could rob them of their spiritual and moral freedom, had an infinitely greater chance of surviving than others.
This is what the Sages mean when they proclaim, "There is no free person except one who is immersed in Torah."
Bells of Freedom
Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, related to the word, may-tzar, "fence." As long as the Jews were in Egypt, they were fenced in, imprisoned. And they endured much more than physical slavery. They became attached to Egyptian culture, to the degree that some later complained about the food they ate at no cost back in Egypt (Numbers 11:5) -- ignoring the fact that the price was oppressive physical bondage!
It's one thing to take the Jews out of slavery, but another thing to take the slavery out of the Jews.
Passover teaches that the beginning of "freedom" is the escape from an oppressor. Perhaps this is better described as "liberty," an external disengagement from an oppressing force. The logical and necessary extension of liberty is freedom. Liberty without freedom is like a prisoner who gets released -- but then walks back into the prison and locks the gate! If nothing fills the gap when one oppressor is thrown off, then another oppressor will.
The cycle is broken when one realizes that only the spiritual can offer true freedom. Freedom is an internal state where the soul soars, independent of the external.
Passover is when we ceased serving Pharaoh, when we discarded our oppressor. Yet we don't want to merely exchange one oppressor for another. That's why God gave us the Torah on Shavuot. It was then that we became totally free to pursue the deepest, most meaningful goals in life, free of fantasy and distractions.
Guideposts in the Forest
Serving God according to Torah manifests itself in different ways. Sometimes we pray, perform rituals and learn Torah; at other times we conduct business in a moral, Torah way. God is the same God in the House of Worship as in the office and home. The mitzvot block unwanted materialistic spam, and at the same time engender a perpetual state of connection, an intimate union between the human and Divine, attainted through the myriad details of everyday life.
God presents each of us with billions of carefully laid out moments, each an opportunity to ask: What does He want me to do now? How does He want me to behave? What attitude am I supposed to have?
The mitzvot answer all these questions. They are guideposts for souls traversing the forest of life. The soul that forgoes them risks becoming lost. The soul that knows them is tapped into a supernatural knowledge, a kind of divine inspiration. Such a person can be said to be in tune with God. Like a beautiful, soaring dove, his soul is flying, unencumbered and truly free.