From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Free at last, free at last, thank Gâ€‘d Alâ€‘mighty we are free at last.
Who said these words? No, it wasn’t Moses but American civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But it could have been Moses–or for that matter any one of the millions of Jews who were liberated from Egyptian bondage.
This is the week when we read of the great Exodus. “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 Gâ€‘d, where is the freedom? We are still slaves, only now we are servants of the Alâ€‘mighty?
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 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 hallmark of every belief system, but why conform to any system at all? Why not just be me?
Many Jews argue similarly. “Mitzvos cramp my style.” “Keeping kosher is a serious inconvenience.” “Shabbat really gets in the way of my weekend.” And “Pesach has got to be the biggest headache of the year.” Long ago, the rabbis of the mishnah said it was actually the other way around: “There is no one as free as he who is occupied with the study of Torah.” 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 can the rabbis say that Torah makes us free? Surely it is inhibiting rather than liberating!
Let me share an answer I once heard on the radio while driving in my car. It was during 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 became religious, and the interviewer was questioning how the 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 BBC man’s question: 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. “But 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 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 infrastructure, 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 Torah lifestyle there is still ample room for spontaneity and freedom of expression. Not all rabbis are clones. To the untrained eye, every yeshiva bachur looks identical–a black hat, glasses, and a beard. The truth is that every one 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.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.