Freedom and tranquility

By Rabbi Dan Lewin

In Jewish tradition, certain pivotal events in history are perceived as catalysts for universal innovations — introducing concepts previously absent, either in essence or in quality.

For instance, Shabbat introduced a unique form of peacefulness, infusing it into the fabric of human existence. The common perception is that every day of creation, new beings came onto the scene, except for the seventh, which marked an eternal day of rest. In fact, “Shabbat” means to withdraw from or cease labor.

A deeper analysis, however, reveals that something new was indeed introduced on the seventh day! Yet it wasn’t a physical creation. Rather, the existence of menucha (peace of mind/soul through the awareness of purpose) was suddenly detected. Before that day, there was no perceptible unity or recognizable purpose behind all the moving parts, which appeared disconnected. The consciousness was only ongoing change.

“But when Shabbat arrived,” the commentaries explain, “so did menucha.” This fresh feature was not silence, stillness or superficial peacefulness from lack of disturbance. Rather, it comprised a unique experience of oneness, the ability of intelligent beings to actively tune into the source (and reason) behind all the unfolding details of existence on earth.

It is this essential quality that we aim to instill inside us each day as we strive to juggle many competing desires and responsibilities, particularly on Shabbat. Without this quality, the sense of continual flux — within the universe and our personal lives — is dominant. And the constant change inevitably creates underlying discomfort for the soul. But if we can become aware of the unifying element, the stable link between all the seemingly separate parts of our world, we tap into menucha.

Thus, the mindfulness we attempt to recreate at the end of each week is more than “unplugging” or tuning out the noise. It’s a re-creation of a special tranquility bound to our deeper purpose.

Freedom from Egypt

Just as the observance of Shabbat each week begins with a remembrance of the original seventh day, which allows us to activate the same energy, so too the holiday of Pesach each year commemorates the “time of our freedom.” Our prayers and pervasive recounting of the story suggest that leaving Egypt was not only a key moment in our history; it also brought forth a distinct notion of freedom in the world.

At the same time, one may easily wonder: What type of freedom are we celebrating on Pesach? This question becomes more difficult when considering that throughout history, Jews have celebrated and recited these same passages in the Haggadah — “once we were slaves, but nowwe are free” — under tremendous hardship and circumstances which signaled the opposite of freedom. The answer has many angles. On the surface, leaving Egypt marks the birth of a Jewish nation, previously an assembly of tribes from one family. Furthermore, reliving this spectacular supernatural delivery at the onset of Jewish history reminds us that we will never be destroyed or abandoned throughout the generations.

A deeper facet is that the Exodus marked not only the liberation from bitter physical bondage but also the initiation of a profound journey toward spiritual emancipation. That’s one reason why, at the beginning of the Seder, we recall our humble origins: “In the beginning, our ancestors worshipped idols….”

More specifically, while physical freedom is precious, it’s only a platform for human development and discovery. One may, for example, enjoy all the benefits of human rights, along with enormous educational and economic opportunities, yet be psychologically imprisoned by fear, depression or distraction. Likewise, one may feel physically and psychologically liberated while spiritually immature, insensitive and imprisoned. Complete freedom entails a combination of all three levels that culminate in a feeling of connection with one’s divine purpose within an ever-changing environment.

The bookends of peoplehood

Though the exodus from Egypt marked the birth of the Jewish nation, it is inextricably linked to another major event — the giving of the Torah. In other words, the physical deliverance of the Children of Israel was for the explicit goal of them receiving a guide to moral living, our gateway to serving G-d. Hence, the most famous phrase in the Exodus story, “Let my people go,” ends with the phrase, “so they may serve me in the wilderness (Exodus 7:16).”

This transformation in identity required 49 days of gradual spiritual preparation to undo the slave mentality of Egypt. The 50th day, on a Shabbat, brought the Ten Commandments, beginning with the resounding revelation of “I am the Lord your G-d.” Here, the novel peacefulness introduced during the initial days of creation merged with a newfound freedom that came through a fuller awareness of our purpose in this world.

With this in mind, we can better understand the statement in Pirkei Avos (6:2), the storehouse of Jewish ethics: “For there is no free person but one who occupies himself with the study of the Torah.” At first glance, discipline and toil in study have nothing to do with any qualities of freedom. But the Mishnah conveys that Torah knowledge, when pursued sincerely and properly absorbed, frees a person from the confines of self-interest, base instincts and the vicissitudes of this world.

This ability to transcend one’s natural inclinations — wherein the soul is prioritized and elevated over the body’s shackles — to tune in to the higher goal was the deeper freedom that arrived at the time of Pesach Mitzrayim (Passover).

An ongoing process

The innovation of this category of liberating experience and sense of spiritual fulfillment ignited at the Exodus but crystallized at Mount Sinai was not an endpoint. It only began an ongoing process. Each year, as we gather for the Seder, we continue to develop and refine our understanding of freedom — until the ultimate freedom described in the messianic era.

On the flip side, the transformative power was already received during the original Exodus: From that time on, we can never be enslaved internally. Despite limitations imposed on us, the Jewish nation’s history illustrates our capacity to emerge from hardship with resilience and strength. Our task, therefore, is to continually ascend to new levels of freedom, transcending internal and external constraints. In this regard, Pesach each year is the prime time to realize our highest potential.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayan-chai.org.

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