Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Freedom Needs More than a Revolution

History tells us of many revolutions that began with sublime ideals and visions of liberty, only to be followed by deep disappointment and even greater tyranny and oppression.

The French revolution began in a magnificent blaze of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" and rapidly evolved into the Reign of Terror and the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars that so devastated Europe. In the end, the French exchanged bondage of neglect under the Bourbon Monarchs for bondage of abuse under the revolution. True freedom remained as elusive as ever.

The Russian people had suffered under the autocratic rule of the Romanov Kings for centuries. When they rose up in revolution in 1917, they and the world were filled with hope for a life of freedom and a new, more just and equitable society. This hope was slaughtered in the cellars and torture chambers of the secret police and frozen in the slave camps of the Gulag. The slavery to the Romanovs was paradise compared to the bondage, absolute lack of freedom, and the slaughter of millions in the new Soviet state.

Attaining freedom is not merely about leaving a yoke of bondage behind; it is about a clear vision of a new paradigm for a better world. Otherwise, the revolution will be a true revolution -- it will revolve a full 360 degrees and the same ingrained patterns will reassert themselves, and sometimes even worse. A true revolution needs to be one of 180 degrees -- a whole new direction.

We see this theme articulated throughout the Account of the Exodus. At the burning bush, G-d tells Moses to instruct Pharaoh "Shalach ami vey'avduni" -- "Let my people go, that they may serve Me." Just letting the people go is not going to accomplish anything in the long run, if they're not going to something -- to something that's the alternative, indeed the antithesis, to Egypt. Most significantly, the encounter at the burning bush takes place at Mt. Sinai where the Jews would be given the Torah -- a truly revolutionary document that would, through the agency of the Jewish people, transform and empower all of humanity.

During the wanderings of the Children of Israel through the desert, we find that every time there were those who shirked their duty, they raised the cry "Let us go back to Egypt." Did they want to suffer again as slaves? Surely not. I think that what the Torah is telling us is that abandoning the new vision and mission leads back to Egypt. Perhaps a new Egypt, but a slavery just the same.

All that is true of nations and world history is true of what the Talmud calls the "small world" of each individual person.

The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means "constraints." We suffer under the constraints of the habits we maintain simply because we had them yesterday. We are slaves to ingrained pathways of our lives and our world, because we are too busy dusting the covers of our Book of Life to read its pages.

The Exodus was a truly spectacular and dramatic experience. But for this experience to have a lasting effect, we need to remember that not only do we have to leave the old habits ("let my people go"), we need a vision and program of the new ("that they may serve Me"). Otherwise, we end up not far from where we started from.

Since the The Hebrew term "Avoda" means not just work and service but creative artistry, the term Vey'Avduni -- "that they may serve Me" -- actually means "That they may transform themselves thorough Me." When we look to the Torah -- the receiving of which is the sole purpose of the Exodus -- we discover that the freedom to realize the potential of every aspect of our being lies within its Mitzvot.

Every area of life stands ready to yield purpose, meaning and fulfillment if we are willing to dare to be truly free. "Truly free" is not freedom from the bondage of whichever Pharaoh, king or Czar happens to be oppressing us at the moment, but freedom from the bondage of all self-imposed limits on our capacity to truly realize our G-dly potential.

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