The desire to run away from a difficult challenge is universal. Whether the context is marriage, employment, place of residence or a chosen course of study, when the going gets tough, many ordinary mortals flee the scene. The following scenario is not at all uncommon: Sarah tolerated an abusive and highly dysfunctional marriage for many years. Despite the pleas of family and friends, she elected to suffer humiliation and torment rather than seek a divorce.
Finally, at the repeated urging of rabbanim and the intervention of therapists, she felt strong enough to stand up for herself and was successful in obtaining a get. Predictably, her initial reaction was euphoria. She was free at last. Also predictably, the “high” that Sarah experienced did not last very long. While she had, at long last, achieved enough self-confidence and dignity to leave the marriage, she was illprepared to tackle what followed and get on with her life. Sarah’s “high” gave way to a sinking feeling of “now what?” There is a principle in physics asserting that nature abhors a vacuum. This same principle applies to our everyday pursuits as well as to our emotional, intellectual and spiritual activities. A new path or mode of behavior must replace the previous one to which we were accustomed. The question then becomes, what exactly is going to take the place of the previous reality? The inescapable conclusion is that true freedom must consist of two phases: Throwing off the shackles of our enslavement and having a plan for the future, i.e., freedom to do what? This principle is also operative on the global stage.
Witness the current upheavals and revolutions in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Many governments have been overthrown but what has arisen in their place has not proven to be any better. The masses know what they don’t want, but they have no cohesive plan as to what should follow the undoing of the previous system. The Torah recognizes this phenomenon and addresses it in the connection between Pesach and Shavuos. Even before our liberation from slavery, Hashem outlined the objective of our soon-to-be-acquired freedom: “in order that you will serve Hashem on this mountain.”
While Pesach marked our liberation from the yoke of Pharaoh—phase one—Shavuos commemorates the giving of the Torah and our commitment to the yoke of mitzvos—phase two. Since both phases are of one continuum, there are opinions that Pesach and Shavuos are really a single Yom Tov, and that the 49 days in between them are sort of a “Chol Hamoed.” As such, it behooves us to examine the slave mentality and how we were able to sink to such a degraded state in Egypt. The Chasam Sofer offers a remarkable insight. The Egyptians, he explains, were able to demoralize klal Yisrael and throw them into the abyss by convincing them that nothing they did mattered, and by extension, that they didn’t matter. They accomplished this by forcing the Jews to build structures that immediately crumbled and sank into the ground. All of the backbreaking labor to which the Jews were subjected was for naught. Indeed, when human beings toil day in and day out and have nothing to show for their efforts, dehumanization ensues.My father-in-law, of blessed memory, used to tell the story of a person who was falsely accused and sentenced to many years in prison.
Before the guard locked the door to the cell, the man begged him for something useful to do while he was incarcerated. The guard took pity on the hapless fellow and pointed to a wheel protruding from the wall. Turning the wheel, he explained, would irrigate the surrounding fields and gardens, bringing life-giving waters to parched vegetation. Delighted, the prisoner spent years cranking the heavy wheel, imagining in his mind’s-eye the flowers, grasses and fruit trees he was causing to bloom and flourish. When the day of his release arrived, his first request was to see the results of his efforts. The guard broke into derisive laughter, revealing that the whole thing had been a hoax and that in fact the wheel was attached to absolutely nothing. The prisoner could not survive the knowledge that his labor had been in vain. He immediately collapsed and died.
Hashem liberated us from the servitude of Pharaoh, a state in which nothing we did mattered. But being the wise Architect of true freedom, He knew that “phase one” was not enough. To direct us to “phase two,” He declared us His chosen people and invested in us a piece of G-d, as it were. The Chasam Sofer interprets “I am Hashem, your G-d” (the first of the Ten Commandments) to mean “I am Hashem who has given you Elokecha, a spark of G-dliness.” This resulted in a quantum change in that everything we do matters, because it comes from the G-dliness with which Hashem endows us. The lesson in these final days before Shavuos is that it is imperative for us to appreciate how much we matter and how much everything we do matters.
The slave mentality of Egypt must give way to the understanding that when Hashem identified us as His servants rather than Pharaoh’s we were elevated to royalty, in accordance with the dictum “eved melech melech” (the servant of a king is himself a king). As important as it is not to be enslaved, it is no less important to recognize that we are sovereign to shape our future. Moreover, since we are all in this together, we must also impress upon our brothers and sisters how much they matter to us and to the Ribbono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe.
This act of kiruv and caring can be accomplished with a kind word, a compliment or expression of gratitude, or whatever else inspires us at the moment, shifting the focus from ourselves to others. In conclusion, if the Sarahs of the world are to be successful in their flight to freedom, they must embark on a well-thoughtout program for the future and helped to find a constructive and productive path to replace the painful patterns of the past. True emancipation requires connecting to our resilient core, doing some serious soul-searching and looking inward. We can prevail and eschew doubts about our self-worth. For in truth, we are children of royalty and everything we do matters to our Heavenly Parent. With this in mind, we will be genuinely liberated and be able to greet Mashiach Tzidkeinu with the dignity of true freedom.