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Home » B'Chukotai, Education, Free Choice, Marriage

B’chukotai: Personal Freedom

Submitted by on May 6, 2007 – 3:44 amNo Comment | 2,065 views

Edicts and Rewards

Judaism is replete with divine edicts and commands, some of which we understand, many of which we don’t, but all of which we are required to fulfill. Judaism certainly emphasizes providing for G-d what is important to him, but does it also look out for our best interests? Is there room for self expression in Judaism?

In the Torah, we are promised material reward for obeying G-d’s many commandments. These commandments cover nearly every facet of human life. From waking to sleeping, from the way we dress to the way we eat, everything is governed by religious law. Everything must be done in accordance with G-d’s will. But what of our will? Aren’t we important too?

If the answer is in fact that only G-d is important and we are not, why are we promised material reward? Can material reward assuage our mortification at being forced to acknowledge our essential insignificance? Is material reward a substitute for liberty, individuality and self expression?

Empathetic Concern

Our children are ruled by a strict regimen. We give them curfew hours, non negotiable bedtimes and  require them to eat balanced, nutritional meals. personal freedom - innerstreamChildren often feel constricted by these rules. They are jealous of those, whose parents allow them to come and go as they please, eat as they choose and miss school whenever they feel like sleeping in.

Of course, as adults, we know better. The first parent is caring, the second parent is neglectful. Parents, who love their children and want them to develop properly offer a healthy mix of discipline and love. Parents, who dismiss their children’s behavior discard their children’s future.

A woman once told me that she had two errands to complete before entering the covenant of marriage. First she returned her father’s credit card, then she handed her husband a cell phone. As she loosened the bonds of her first relationship she established the bonds of her second relationship.

Men find calling their wives a difficult adjustment from their carefree liberty of singlehood. Their wives want to know where they go and what they do. How they travel and when they arrive. It can seem stifling.

But what are their wives really saying? They are telling her husband that they care. That they worry. When he was single, he could go where he pleased and do as he liked. No one bothered him because no one cared. He could have a wonderful day and he could have a miserable day; there would be no one at home to share his frustrations and his joys. He could get lost and no one would be the wiser. He could find his way home and no one would rejoice. No one would know because no one would care.

Now he has a partner, who cares for him. No matter where he is, his wife thinks of him and worries for his welfare. “Call me,” she says. What she is really saying is, “I love you.” “Call me,” she says. What she is really saying is, “You matter to me.”

Aimless Wanderer

I remember reading a story about someone who faked his own death and moved to a distant country under an assumed name. At first his newfound anonymity seemed liberating and his freedom exhilarating, but after several days he understood the bitter price he had paid. He could go where he pleased because no one cared. He could live and he could die, no one would care.  No one knew, who he was. He mattered to absolutely no one.

He wandered about like an aimless balloon. When a human being enters a country he or she is stopped at the border and interrogated. When a balloon wanders into a country, no one could care less. Imagine the balloon calling down to request a visa. “A visa,” the guard would scoff. “Go where you like. Go up, go down, go right, go left, come in or stay out, no one cares. You’re just a balloon. You don’t matter.

Divine Edicts

We now return to our initial question. Does Judaism allow for individual expression? Does Torah allow personal freedom? Are we permitted to do what we want to do because it feels good to do it?

If we were in fact meaningless to G-d, if he didn’t care about our spiritual and cosmic welfare he would have left us to our own devices. He would have allowed us to roam through life at our leisure. It wouldn’t matter if we were moral or not, faithful or not, observant or not. “Do what you want,” he would say. “You are meaningless to me.”

As it happens, he loves us and he cares. He worries for us and is concerned with our behavior. Our successes  elate him, our failures distress him. We matter to him. He chose us; we are his children. “I can’t just forget about you,” says G-d. “I care too much. Call me when you cross the street and call me when you arrive. I want to hear from you every day. In fact, three times a day.”

The uncared for person is not free. A lonely existence is a crushing burden. It constrains us and robs us of our freedom. True freedom, the kind of freedom that allows our souls to sour, comes from knowing that we matter enough to make a difference. That we are important enough to make a difference.

Personal Freedom

Does Judaism allow for individual expression? Of course. What better way to express our individual value than to be told that the creator of heaven and earth is impacted by our choices? Does Judaism allow personal freedom? Of course! What better way to free our personality from the crushing weight of meaningless solitude than to be told that we matter on a cosmic scale?

Does Judaism allow us to follow our heart and do what we want because it feels good to do it? Absolutely. What can feel better than to know that I, little insignificant me, am significant to an infinite and eternal G-d?

Would we feel more free if we were permitted to go where we pleased and do what we please? We might feel better in the short term, but after several days we would feel the burden of insignificance and pine for validation.

Material Reward

Knowing that G-d cares is reward enough, but G-d offers more. G-d promises material reward for following his edicts. These rewards are not meant to mollify us for our loss of liberty. On the contrary, his commandments endow us with liberty. These rewards are not substitutes to liberty, they are its accouterments. A person, who matters to G-d ought to be treated like royalty. (2)

Footnotes:

  1. Leviticus 26: 3-13.
  2. This essay is based on a lecture by Rabbi YY Jacobson titled, “Self Expression in Judaism.” Click here to view the lecture.
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