"I wouldn't let financial considerations affect the decision." The teacher looked at me primly across her desk. "The tuition might be very high, but you can take out a student loan, and, with the salary you'll be making right away when you graduate, you'll pay it off in no time."
"Just tell him what his options are," my mother said from beside me. "I don't want him to pass up any opportunities without even trying."
"You can apply to Harvard or Yale if you like," the teacher said. "Don't let anyone discourage you."
"But . . . I don't think I want that," I replied.
It was years ago. I was 16 and seated beside my parents in a small office in my high school. The teacher sat authoritatively on the other side of her desk, treating us to a gaze of utter composure. This conference was the first of many, the beginning of a process that would last over a year, the process of choosing and securing admission to a college. And, as far as the school was concerned, there was every reason in the world to aim for the best university within every student's reach.
"It's a shame if you could go to these schools and you don't."
I didn't fully agree with their approach. I had different plans for myself. I had always valued my religious studies and wanted to continue them further; going to one of the exclusive (and exclusively secular) universities they were espousing would prevent me from having that option. There was no reason, I felt, for me to travel so far from home. And the tuition, which my parents could not afford, was somewhat daunting. I didn't know enough yet to appreciate the full import of taking out a hefty student loan (probably over $100,000), but it was still somewhat intimidating. For a lower price, I could attend a college closer to home where I could also pursue religious studies.
But the faculty, my peers, my family, everyone seemed to have different ideas.
"Think about it," the teacher said, showing us to the door. "It's a shame if you could go to these schools and you don't."
The Pressure Grows
As the months passed, I felt the pressure mounting. Much of it was subtle, although some was overt. And over time, my own inner voices were slowly drowned out by the clamor of society's certainties.
"What's the matter with you?" a friend demanded of me. "Why won't you consider these places?"
"If you go to a big university, doors will open for you," a family member told me. "The degree will take you many places."
"You would enjoy it so much there," a teacher remarked. "You belong there," another one said.
My resolve was wearing down and the option of attending an Ivy League college became more realistic in my mind. My objections evaporated one by one, replaced by a fuzzy sense that I was making the correct decision by following the common wisdom. When application time rolled around, I submitted an early decision application to increase my chances of being accepted. An early decision applicant has to sign a contract wherein he commits to attend the college in question. I handed in the paper with misgivings, but I tried to wash them away by reminding myself that this had to be the right thing; after all, didn't everyone else believe it was?
Yet the niggling doubts refused to disappear. I argued with friends, classmates, and even my parents at every opportunity. "Who says this is right for me?" I demanded. The replies were usually vague reassurances of the "it's what everybody does and everybody wants" variety.
And that was how I received my acceptance letter, which was met with a flurry of emotions for which I wasn't prepared. Yes, there was pride and happiness, and some anxiety. And there was another feeling which I couldn't label at the time, but have since come to recognize.
The feeling of being trapped.
Success . . . or Not
That feeling continued to haunt me over the ensuing months. I made plans for the coming year with an air of good cheer that I did not feel. I felt like an airplane passenger who realizes he received someone else's boarding pass and is on a flight headed in the wrong direction. I went through the motions of making my preparations, trying to silence the gnawing voices of doubt inside of me.
We graduated on a balmy night in June and went our separate ways. There was a long summer vacation before the coming school year, and I spent most of it deep in thought, mulling over my current situation and what I could do to change it.
Then, in a flash, the answer came to me.
About three quarters of my classmates were taking the year off before starting college to study in Israel. It was a common route, albeit an option I had not really considered. But suddenly, I felt compelled to go. It was a chance to pursue my Judaic studies seriously, and exclusively, before I started university. It was a chance to push off attending a school I had never really wanted. It was a chance for exploration, within and without.
For a while, my new inner compulsion battled the cumulative weight of the preceding months of preparation and the power of inertia. It was a difficult decision, and making such a radical change of plans at the last minute was far from easy. Finally, I reminded myself that this opportunity would only come once. If I failed to follow my instincts now, I was condemning myself to live with regret forever. Who could know how many times in the future I would reflect on this crossroads in my life and chide myself for not having the courage to make a change?
I made the change.
A ripple of shock spread through the community. Six days after my change of plans, I was in Israel.
Within the course of about a day, I deferred my college admission, selected a yeshiva, got accepted, and booked a flight. A ripple of shock spread through the community. I was not present long enough to feel its effects. Six days after my change of plans, I was in Israel. My parents had reeled from the suddenness of my decision, but they quickly recovered. Longtime Israel enthusiasts (they even live there today), they were certainly pleased with the venue I had chosen.
Life in Israel was different than anything I had experienced before. The days were filled with Torah study on a level I had never known existed. I was introduced to new concepts, new ways of learning, new texts I had never seen before. The yeshiva was in a small, rural community, with plenty of open spaces echoing with silence.
And it was within that silence that I discovered another silence.
Suddenly, all those voices that had clamored at me for so long to tread a different path, to accept the values society had dictated -- all those voices were gone. There was no one here pushing me to make any specific decisions, no one subtly "reminding" me of the value of an Ivy League education. I was away from it all. None of my new peers in the yeshiva had any interest in discussing the issue whatsoever. I was free to explore my own thoughts, after so long being bombarded by those of others.
And the realization slowly dawned on me that I had, indeed, been trapped. I had fallen into the trap of accepting all the other viewpoints that my society had thrust upon me. I had let my own ideas, my own plans for myself, be pushed aside by what other people had decided was best for me. And, finally, I realized that this was not what I wanted to do. It was well into the year when I finally reached this conclusion -- Purim time, in fact, and I was due to return to the States shortly for a one-week visit to celebrate my brother's Bar Mitzvah.
It seemed I would be returning with momentous news.
On my first night back at home, I made a rather blunt statement at the dinner table. "I've changed my mind about my future plans. I won't be going to that university anymore. Instead, I'd like to go back to Israel for another year of yeshiva next year."
For a moment, all motion in the room was arrested. My father sat still with a fork halfway to his mouth, while my mother stood at the sink holding a glass in midair. No one spoke. I watched them both tensely, trying to interpret their reaction. Was it disapproval or just shock? Shock, I soon determined, as they resumed their previous activities and acknowledged my decision. Fortunately, they were both supportive and understanding.
I was aware of the importance of honesty, and feared that I might have to follow through on my commitment.
There was one catch, however. Upon receiving my letter of admission, I had signed a contract guaranteeing that I would attend the school. In high school, we had always been warned of the dire consequences of breaching such a contract. "You'll be blacklisted from every other school. You'll earn yourself a bad reputation." I wasn't particularly concerned about that aspect, as I certainly did not plan on exchanging one such school for another. I was concerned, however, about whether or not I was morally obligated to keep my word. I was aware of the importance of honesty, and feared that I might have to follow through on my commitment simply because I had signed the contract. As the days passed, though, I became increasingly determined to find a way out of the agreement. I was finally at peace with myself, and I was not about to relinquish that.
I turned to a rabbi I knew for guidance. After I described the situation, he sat silently for a moment. "You know," he finally said, "you always surprise me. First, you decided to go to Israel, and now this?"
"But what about the contract?" I pressed.
He nodded gravely. "I'm going to take this question to Rabbi X," he told me, naming an elderly, venerable rabbi who is one of the Torah giants of the generation. "Wait for a couple of days, and I will try to have an answer for you."
True to his word, he called me back three days later, but with a perplexing reply. "I spoke to Rabbi X and tried to ask him if you would be allowed to renege on the contract, but he wouldn't give me a straight answer. He just kept saying over and over again, ‘What if someone got sick and couldn't go? What if something else happened? They have to understand. Tell him to write them a letter, and they'll understand.'"
"But what if they don't understand?" I asked, already envisioning the school's refusal to cooperate.
"I tried to ask him that, but he wouldn't answer me," the rabbi replied. "He just kept repeating himself: They will understand. I advise you to take his suggestion and write a letter."
I flew back to Israel and immediately penned an impassioned letter, expressing my hope that they would be understanding and release me from any agreement I had made with them. I mailed the letter and waited tensely for the reply.
A week passed . . . two weeks. . . .
It was the day before Passover. The Seder was a few hours away. I placed a phone call to my parents in America to wish them a good holiday, and my mother told me the news. "The university called today."
I drew in my breath sharply. "What did they say?"
She was silent for a moment. "They said . . . they understand."
We can be trapped in many ways, without even realizing it.
Passover is the holiday of freedom, when we celebrate our liberation from slavery in Egypt. It is difficult for the contemporary mind to grasp what it means to be a slave. Can any of us truly imagine what it would mean to have no identity or life of our own, to be treated like the property of another person and subjected to forced labor with no remuneration?
But people can be slaves in many different ways. A person's desires can have full reign over him. A person may succumb to other modes of thought or points of view, may be trapped into doing the things that society feels are right, even though he feels something else is best for him. We can be trapped in many ways, without even realizing it, without even seeing the prison bars that surround us.
It was surely no coincidence that that liberating phone call took place a few hours before Passover. For Passover surely teaches us that, if we dig deep enough into ourselves, we can find that inner core of freedom: the freedom to be ourselves, to follow our own hearts and souls. The freedom to do what's right.