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Are We Truly Free?

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

Many people think that freedom is living a life with no restriction. Is it? Many also believe that by having such freedom, we are not enslaved today. But are we truly free?

We are now in one of my favorite parts of the Torah, in the book of Exodus, which describes the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt and their redemption. The narrative is not simply historical; it is filled with relevant lessons for us today.

When Moses and Aaron first ask Pharaoh to free the Jews, he gives the Jews more work so that they won’t even have the time or energy to think about freedom.[1] The Ramchal, a great Torah scholar from the 18th century, explains, “This is one of the common tactics of the yetzer hara (the evil inclination within each person), to exert constant pressure on people so that they do not have adequate time to analyze which way they are going.”[2]

When we live lives of habit and never take a step back to ensure that we are living purposeful, meaningful lives, this is slavery.

This is even more of a problem today, with the increased demands of the 24/7 working world and the increased availability of ways to tune out through TV and social media and shopping when we are not working. Rabbi Doniel Katz once coined the term “Facebook Farmers,” for those who spend countless hours looking at pictures and status updates of other people’s lives. Surely no one wants to waste his precious time this way, but the Facebook Farmer is so caught up in habit, the activity is not even conscious.

As someone who became religious, people often say to me, “I could never live a life of such restriction, with all those rules.” Structures are essential in life. For instance, to play music, one needs to know the system of notes; one can’t just play erratically.  Specifically, I have found that the religious “restrictions” provide a framework through which I can experience an even greater freedom than doing whatever I want: the freedom to live a purposeful life of meaning and connection. I find that the pleasure I get from living a life true to my values is much greater than the pleasure of doing whatever I want at any given time.

Take Shabbos. I am certainly sacrificing my freedom to do whatever I want on Saturday by observing Shabbos, but Shabbos gives me an even greater freedom. Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. explains:

We are fortunate in having Shabbos, a day which is strikingly different from the rest of the week, a day on which the many restrictions of activities provide us with the leisure and the opportunity to think about how we are living and what we are doing with our lives…Shabbos can save us from becoming so absorbed with the activities of daily living that we forget why we live.[3]

All of us are enslaved to something on some level, whether it is materialism, social media, our self-image, or a combination.[4] We are unhappy with certain aspects of how our lives are going, yet too caught up in our habits to do anything about it.

This Shabbos, in the parsha that speaks about enslavement, let’s take some time to reflect on where we are and where we want to be. As Rebbetzin Heller says, let’s write the script of our own lives.

Book Suggestion: Lights Along The Way (The classic work on the purpose of life and character development, Mesillas Yesharim, (Path of the Just), with the relatable and illuminating commentary of Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.)

[1] “Let the labor fall heavy upon the men and let them work at it, and let them not talk about pointless matters.” Exodus 5:9

[2] Mesillas Yesharim (The Path of the Just), Chapter 2.

[3] Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D., Lights Along The Way, p. 74.

[4] I recently saw the documentary Minimalism. It’s worth a watch. It shows how much time and energy we spend on accumulating and dealing with “stuff” in pursuit of the “good life.” Without less focus on stuff, we could make space for more important things in our lives.

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