Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cultivating habits of freedom / Parshat Behar

On April 1, 1996, Taco Bell ran a full-page ad in newspapers across the country. The headline read: Taco Bell Buys the Liberty Bell. Under a large photograph of the Liberty Bell, the text read: “In an effort to help the national debt, Taco Bell is pleased to announce that we have agreed to purchase the Liberty Bell, one of our country's most historic treasures. It will now be called the "Taco Liberty Bell" and will still be accessible to the American public for viewing. While some may find this controversial, we hope our move will prompt other corporations to take similar action to do their part to reduce the country's debt.” Timely, no?
(The Bell's First Note, by artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris)

Happily, the Liberty Bell is still ensconced in its rightful place in Philadelphia. Engraved on its side are words from this week’s parashah: U’k’ratem dror ba-aretz / proclaim liberty throughout the land (Lev. 25:10). Here Torah is speaking about the Jubilee year, and the release from slavery and indentured servitude that occurred during the Jubilee year. Let’s toss the Liberty Bell’s phrase back into its original context and take a look. Torah tells us:
You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven time seven years – so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of 49 years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the 10th day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the 50th year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. [Lev. 25:8-10]
This passage is about the Yovel, the Jubilee year. Every 50th year, debts were forgiven, slaves were set freed, and all property sold out of the clan to alleviate oppressive poverty reverted to its original owners.

If you now reread the passage above, you’ll see that Torah says something confusing: The Yovel begins on the first of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah), but the announcement of the Yovel, heralded by the blowing of the shofar, comes at the close of Yom Kippur, ten days later. Why announce the Yovel 10 days after it begins? Isn’t this tantamount to allowing masters to keep their indentured servants another 10 days gratis? Doesn’t this deny people 10 days of freedom?

It seems terribly unjust, until we look into the Talmud, masekhet Rosh Hashanah 8b, where we learn that during the ten days from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, former slaves were neither sent home nor compelled to work. Rather, they spent these 10 days in the homes of their former masters transitioning from servitude to freedom. Former slaves feasted together with their former masters in celebration of their impending freedom and then, after Yom Kippur, their former masters sent them off with generous gifts that enabled them to begin their lives anew, re-created.

There is a lesson here for all of us. The former slaves could not jump straight into freedom and assume the attitudes and behaviors of free people. It didn’t come naturally to them. They needed to practice being free.

We, like those who were released in the Jubilee year, need to learn how to be free by cultivating the habits of freedom. That happens through practice. (How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.)

In our day – when we enjoy physical, political, and religious freedom – we are most likely to seek freedom from what enslaves us within. Consider for a moment what holds you back from reaching your full potential, or from genuine happiness? It’s different for each of us.
Taking a cue from parshat Behar’s discussion of the Jubilee year, I want to suggest three types of freedom many of us seek. Perhaps one or more of these will resonate with you. Like the freed slaves who remained with their former masters for 10 days, we must practice these freedoms in order to make them our own.
  1. The first is freedom of communication. By this I don’t mean that you can say what you want. What I mean is that you are free to say what you truly mean. Many of us have learned to lie – a lot. We say what others want to hear, or what we want others to hear us say, or what we want to believe is true. We say we know something when we don’t because we fear the consequence of not knowing. Many people fear the shame they experience if they don’t say “the right thing” or have the “right answer.” Certainly our true thoughts are not called for when there is risk of hurting someone’s feelings or spreading lashon hara. But beyond that, we need to practice freedom of communication and taking some risks to learn how to be our authentic selves and say what we mean.
  2. The second freedom many of us need is the freedom to fail – without blaming others and without denigrating ourselves. Most of us have been taught that failure means we are inadequate. Not so! The truth is: everyone fails at something. It’s part of life. Ask Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Edison – well, that would be hard since they’re dead. But ask J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books. (Any fans out there?) Their lives were long, frustrating strings of failure – for years and years – until they finally achieved success. I had the opportunity to hear J.K. Rowling talk about the blessing of failure; and although everyone was outside and it was 55 degrees and raining, Rowling kept a crowd of several thousand people mesmerized. The deep truth of her message is one we all need to hear. Failure is the best teacher; we need to see it as a teacher, not a source of shame. I think Rowling, Lincoln, and Edison ultimately succeeded not just because they persevered, but because they accepted their failed efforts without thinking that they themselves were failures. Accepting our failures takes practice (hopefully not too much of it!) but it frees us to succeed in ways we have never imagined.
  3. The third freedom is from the need to control. Life is a wild ride – unpredictable and at times scary. And it’s not fair. So much is chance – when and where we were born, what family we were born into, who we met along the way. What’s more, we never know what is around the corner; everything can change in the blink of an eye. So we live our lives in the illusion that we are in control, making choices, and choosing our destiny. Yes, we do exert some control, but less than we think. It’s great to plan, even to over plan, but then we need to go with the flow. If we can free ourselves from the need to control, we can cultivate the habit of flexibility and respond to what’s thrown our way with integrity. But letting go and being flexible need to be practiced. My favorite prayer – the one I find most meaningful – was written by the Protestant minister and theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. You’ve probably heard it. He called it the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It takes a lot of practice to live up to this prayer, but the payoff, as the title suggests, is serenity – such an important freedom!
All three of these freedoms must be practiced, again and again, to make them habits. We need to practice saying what we mean. We need to practice failing gracefully so we can pick ourselves up and move on. We need to accept that we have far less control than we would like, but freedom to respond to what comes our way with patience, love and compassion. When we practice these habits, and make them fully ours, we will find we are kinder to ourselves and therefore kinder to others, and overall much happier.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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