Free at last, free at last, thank G‑d Almighty we are free at last. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t celebrating Passover but the civil-rights victories he championed. But those words could have been said by Moses—or, for that matter, any one of the millions of Jews who were liberated from Egyptian bondage.
This is the week when we celebrate the birth of our people at the great Exodus and Passover, the Season of our Liberation. Here’s a question you may want to discuss at your seder.
Let my people go that they may serve Me was the Divine call transmitted by Moses to Pharaoh. Now, if the purpose of leaving Egypt and Pharaoh’s whip was to be able to serve G‑d, where is the freedom? We are still slaves, only now we are servants of the Almighty!
Indeed, countless individuals continue to question the merits of religion in general. Who wants to submit to the rigors of religion when we can be free spirits? Religion, they argue, stifles the imagination, stunts our creative style, 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 hallmarks of every belief system; but why conform to any system at all? Why not just be “me”?
Many Jews argue similarly. Commandments cramp my style. Kosher is a serious inconvenience. Shabbat gets in the way of my weekend. And Passover has got to be the biggest headache of the year. And you call this “Freedom?!”
But long ago, the sages of the Talmud 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 true? Torah is filled with rules of law, ethics and even expectations and exhortations that we take the high road and behave beyond the call of duty. How could they say that Torah makes us free? Surely, it is inhibiting rather than liberating?
Let me share an answer I once heard on my car radio from a rather unlikely source. It was in 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 later years, Malcolm Muggeridge embraced a religious lifestyle, 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 as his?
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 reporter’s question. The yachtsman 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’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 sail around 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. 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 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 guidance system, we flounder about, wandering aimlessly through life. Just look at our kids when they’re on vacation from school and are “free” from the disciplines of the educational system. Unless they have a program of some kind to keep them busy—like a summer camp—they become very frustrated in their “freedom.”
Within the traditional Jewish lifestyle, there is still ample room for spontaneity and freedom of expression. Not all rabbis are clones. To the untrained eye, it may seem that every yeshivah student looks identical—a black hat, glasses and a beard. The truth is that everyone is distinctively different; an individual with his very own tastes, attitudes, personality and preferences. They may look the same, but they are each 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.
I wish you a Chag Kosher v’Sameach!
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.