5.04.2006

Freedom

If you don't read Esther Kustanowitz's column in The Jewish Week regularly, you should start. It's ostensibly a singles' column, but it usually contains messages that we could all stand to hear. Here is a recent one that I particularly enjoyed.

What I most enjoyed in the column was an idea that she hints at but I don't think mentions explicitly: Freedom isn't always as freeing as it first seems, and captivity or bondage aren't always as constrictive as they first seem.

That is also a possible interpretation of a somewhat cryptic midrashic passage from Exodus Rabbah, recently shared with me by LAM:

"And the writing was the writing of God, engraved (charut) upon the tablets." [Exodus 32:16] What is the meaning of engraved (charut)? Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah each explained it. Rabbi Judah said: Free (chayrut) from captivity. Rabbi Nehemiah said: Free (chayrut) from the Angel of Death.
A less mysterious text that conveys the same idea is a mishna in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 6:2 (not always included in the traditional five chapter long Ethics of the Fathers):
R. Joshua, the son of Levi, said, "Every day a bat-kol goes forth from Mount Horeb, proclaiming and saying, 'Woe to mankind for contempt of the Torah, for whoever does not occupy himself in the Torah is said to be under the divine censure, as it...says, 'And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.' Read not charut [engraved], but chayrut [freedom], for no man is free but he who occupies himself in the learning of Torah."

That idea is also hinted at in the following Robert Frost poem. Connecting Frost's poem to the freedom/bondage of the "writing of God" is not my idea. It is that of my dear friend MUL. (Check out an annotated interpretation here, which disagrees with MUL's understanding of the poem.)
"The Silken Tent" (1942)

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.
I used to chafe at the idea that bondage to either "silken ties of love and thought" or "the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets" could be freeing rather than constrictive. I thought that trying to make it so was a mind game; it was fooling oneself into voluntarily accepting constriction. I am no longer sure that it is such a mind game, and sometimes think that those who imagine themselves to be free from all external restrictions (a set of religious precepts, an employer, a long term relationship, or any others) are the ones who are actually playing mind games with themselves.

It's related to my feeling that we all worship something to some extent, so I might as well worship God. Some people worship money, prestige, intellectual achievementent, professionachievementent, their parents, their children, or food; I choose to worship God, instead.

1 comment:

Esther Kustanowitz said...

Great post. I'm not sure I'm smart enough to understand it all, but I'm honored to have been a part of it.