What Freedom Means to Me
A Collection of Essays
Zman Cheruseinu, the time of our freedom. It’s the name of Pesach I used to contemplate most as I sat at my grandfather’s Seder and listened to him recite the Haggadah in the dearly familiar Hungarian accent I loved so much. What was he thinking, I wondered as I watched him, serene and serious at the head of the table. The words of Vehi Sheamda, those I knew he connected with, and not just because I heard the tremor in his voice as he sang. He had lived it, escaping from the inferno that swallowed his parents and young siblings. But did he feel free? Maybe he felt free because of that. The words of my teacher – ein lecha ben chorin ella mi she’osek baTorah, that there is no one freer that one who learns Torah – rang in my ears. Zeidy always had a sefer in his hands, so he must feel free.
I think the reason I contemplated that question so extensively was that my grandparents’ happiness was so important to me. I wanted them to be happy. I wanted them to feel free, not chained down by the memories that were too terrible to discuss but lingered in the air nonetheless. So on this holiday of freedom, I studied their faces for clues that would let me in on what they were feeling.
I’m sure that if my grandparents had an inkling as to what I was thinking about at those sedarim of decades ago, they would have been surprised. Because what could a child like me – young, carefree, bedecked in new finery – know about such things? What did I know about things like freedom and happiness? They were handed to me on a silver spoon.
I still think about those questions. Who says freedom is linked with happiness? Who defines what freedom is to begin with? Does it have to be absolute? My grandparents were – and are – testament to the fact that it does not. They were chained by the past and yet free. They were sad and yet happy. And this dichotomy is what propelled them along as they built their future, for themselves and for me.
This is the contradiction of the Seder. We celebrate our freedom as we are in exile. We celebrate and yet there is so much we still await. And how do we do it? The way our grandparents did, and their grandparents, and their grandparents…all the way back. Because at the center of all that turmoil is an anchor of tradition and Torah that grounds us and gives us hope. And in that sense, we will always be free, wherever we are.
613 Chains to Keep me Free
I have a confession to make. As a pre-teen, I used to fantasize on those long Shabbosim about all the fun things I could be doing if I wasn’t shomer Shabbos. I could be playing music, going shopping or painting my nails. I felt resentful of all the restrictions and limitations. Why couldn’t I wear short sleeves on a hot day? Why couldn’t I have ice cream right after my burger, and why did I have to sit in shul for hours?
In high school, I understood more, but that knowledge didn’t stop me from lamenting on how much time I was “wasting” on Shabbos when I could be typing up a paper on the computer, practicing my math equations for the Regents, or visiting the library to finish up that research project. If it wasn’t for Shabbos, I thought to myself, I could be getting so much more accomplished.
We have laws that dictate all aspects of our life. From the big issues like marriage, birth, and death to the seemingly mundane acts of eating, sleeping, and cutting our nails, there are guidelines for everything. So, how can one feel free with so many rules and regulations?
As an adult and as a parent, I realize more than ever how our commandments and mitzvos, all 613 of them, keep us grounded and make me feel free.
Shabbos, the day of the week I dreaded most out of silly boredom is now my lifeline, pulling me through week after week. It seems that once I hear the Havdalah candle wicks hissing into the spilled grape juice that I am already mentally counting down to the next Shabbos. If it weren’t for Shabbos and all its limitations, a workaholic like me would never put the laptop away. I would never find the time to sit down to a three-course meal, let alone with candlelight for ambiance. Shabbos is the only day I have time to make and eat salad and other healthy foods. During the work week, it is just rush, grab, and eat. The slow pace of Shabbos allows me to lay on the carpet and play an intense game of Monopoly with my kids without having to busy my mind with real-life issues of rent and collections. Attending shul on Shabbos morning is one of the highlights of my week. Seeing the Torah scroll come out, hearing the Parasha being read, and just being part of a ritual that has been a part of our people for thousands of years connects me to my roots and assures me that all will be okay.
The other halachos, kosher for example, teach me about self-control and delayed satisfaction, something that is severely lacking in this immediate gratification era we are living in. Saying a blessing before and after I consume food forces me to stop and appreciate where this nourishment came from and what it is doing for my body and soul.
Tznius, an issue many teen girls struggle with, is a G-d send as an almost 40-year old woman. I hear gentile coworkers complain all the time about their saggy arms, greying hair, and getting their bodies to be beach ready. These are not concerns I have. In Judaism, the body is a mere vessel created to commit good deeds and mitzvos and not a figure to be displayed and ogled.
Ashreinu ma tov chelkeinu!
Like a parent advising his eager child to refrain from consuming all that candy or forcing him to wear a scarf on a windy day, we are being protected without our knowledge; if we are smart enough, we will realize that all that is mandated is in actuality for our own good. The Torah is a beautiful, ingenious, customized guide for us; it is Hashem’s roadmap for life, if we choose to follow it.
I for one, have never felt freer!
Many of us are familiar with the concept of how freedom can exist on a global level – as a nation – as well as on a personal level, with the parts of our life that make us feel stuck and unable to change. Mental health is very connected to this concept.
Perhaps the most significant underlying trait in mental health is flexibility, whereas in mental illness it’s rigidity. Rigidity means being stuck in how we think feel and behave as well as relate to others. Mental health is the ability to “flow” through moods, events, and interactions and fully experience our natural feelings while not getting stuck in one state. We all experience feelings of sadness or depression, but that becomes a disorder when we are stuck in that mood and mindset and unable to feel other emotions. We all get nervous at times, but that anxiety becomes a disorder when it is inflexible. This applies to personality disorders as well; the mark of a personality disorder is a fixed way of interacting with and relating to others regardless of the situation or context.
We might not always realize how this happens in families as well when it comes to roles. It is common in families for people to take on or be assigned a specific role. Some of these common roles include caretaker, hero, scapegoat, clown, and lost child. Maybe in a future article we can go into more details about the specifics of each. Some people may enjoy their roles. Others feels stuck, becoming “enslaved” and forced to play out a role regardless of what they are feeling.
Success in life directly correlates to the ability to be flexible and change along with the situations in front of us. We don’t live in a world of permanence. With the constant changes that happen to objects, people, family, society, and circumstances, the ability to be flexible is perhaps our greatest asset.
May we all experience our own sense of freedom this Yom Tov.
Alexander Rand, LCSW
Windexing Our Way to Personal Freedom
It’s almost ironic to think that the Jewish holiday that involves pages and pages of dos and don’ts and entails hours of scrubbing and cleaning is the one that is all about freedom. How is it possible that the same Yom Tov whose dietary requirements leave cooks scratching their heads as they try to bake cakes with no flour and has armies of men, women and children Windexing everything in sight is actually a celebration of liberation?
On the surface it makes no sense. But then again, who says that everything in life has to seem logical to us?
I admit that it has taken me many, many years to get over my dread of Pesach. For years, Pesach was referred to as “the p-word” in our house, something that I tried not to think about because I was focused on what I knew was going to be more than a little manual labor. I dreamed of someone, anyone, inviting me to enjoy an all expenses paid trip to a Pesach hotel so that I could enjoy the chag without having to do anything more than decide which dress I was wearing when and if I wanted to chocolate covered almonds or a strawberry smoothie (or both!) for a late night snack.
But then something happened – actually two things. The first was that as time has gone by, Pesach sedarim have evolved from being endless recitals of the Haggadah punctuated by large quantities of burnt matzah and mandatory consumption of viler than vile horseradish root, and flying frogs, finger puppets and mini marshmallow hail have now become common ways to make things come alive for kids of all ages. The second was that suddenly I found myself with a whole bunch of grandchildren, and scattered throughout my long dates with my vacuum were bursts of creativity where I sat on the floor of my closet at 2 A.M. making things like a Yam Suf curtain studded with foam fishies and jeweled crowns for everyone, even my wonderfully good natured sons in law, to wear at the Seder, turning Pesach into a labor intensive but surprisingly fun holiday.
We all get caught up in our day to day existence with our regular routines, doing things the way we have been accustomed to doing them for years. But both in our Yiddishkeit and in our personal lives it is important not to get locked into always doing everything exactly the same way. Maybe we should call our moms more often than we do right now. Perhaps we should be more careful about thinking about the meaning of the words we are saying while we are davening. Could we give a little more tzedakah or remind ourselves that as walking emissaries of Hashem we need to always conduct ourselves in ways that will make him proud? The answer to both of those questions is quite probably yes.
As we celebrate Pesach this year, let all of the associated rules and regulations that have us living our lives very differently for eight days be a tangible and liberating reminder that we should never be content with the status quo. Breaking out of our typical routines and even our diets gives us the freedom to do things in new and hopefully better ways, empowering each of us to stretch our wings a little further and maximize our true potential as parents, children, siblings, friends and members of the Jewish community.