Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Emor (Leviticus 21-24) 5784/2024Freedom for Personal Potential

Imagine going back in time and being given the task of convincing the Virginia House of Burgesses to pass a resolution that would enable Virginian troops to enter the Revolutionary War; George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are there to hear your speech. How would you articulate the magnitude of the concept of freedom? Patrick Henry had that opportunity and ended his speech with seven words that became history; “Give me liberty or give me death!” We generally equate having liberty with having freedom but that’s not always accurate. A person can live in a free and democratic society and still have fear, lack self-confidence or any number of other self-imposed limitations that restrict him or her from doing the things they really want. When a guy in school likes a girl and wants to ask her out but is afraid to do so, freedom is worthless because he has determined he can’t. This holds true of asking one’s boss for a raise, running for a communal or political office, public speaking or anything else that you want to do and are free to do but don’t because of fear.This week’s Torah portion begins with G-d instructing Moses to talk to the Kohanim (“priests”). When read carefully, we can understand how the concept of freedom is raised.
           And G-d said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them,        ‘You shall not contaminate yourselves for a dead person among his people. ’
Why is Moses told to “speak” to the Kohanim and then “say” to them, which seems redundant? (It should have simply said, “tell the Kohanim not to contaminate…”) The extra words are there for an additional lesson. The main message was that a Kohen should not come in contact with a corpse. However, there was a possibility that the Kohanim would find this prohibition so restrictive that they would be bothered by the burden imposed on them. Therefore, G-d told Moses to first “‘Speak to the Kohanim” and emphasize that they are “the sons of Aaron.” They aren’t ordinary people; they are chosen to be exalted among the Jewish nation and be public servants in G-d’s sanctuary. Their special status requires a higher and more purified way of life; the prohibitions are not oppressive restrictions but marks of distinction.
Liberty is the freedom to achieve our personal potential without outside interference and has us choosing to set restrictions to achieve what’s important to us. People who work out regularly are careful about what they eat and they choose to restrict themselves from certain unhealthy foods or activities not in accord with their lifestyle. These people live a life of restrictions, but they have liberty—they are free and live in the same free country as the couch potato who snacks on cake, chips, and soda. But the one who has chosen to exercise and have dietary restrictions is the one with true liberty.
Some view a life of Mitzvot—Jewish observance—as having a restricted existence. But those who live an observant life view it as a life of freedom to follow the Creator’s instructions, which serve as tools to help us deal with the struggles of not being slaves to our negative feelings and emotions as well as passions and desires. One who is Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant) chooses a life that allows for one day a week to be detached from business, mundane affairs, electronics and other matters; it allows one to connect to his or her true self, family, and G-d and wouldn’t give it up for anything. Just as athletes or Navy Seals see their “restrictive” life as a way to fulfill their potential, so too one who is Shomer Shabbos views one day a week set aside for the most important things in life as a vehicle for potential fulfillment.    
We don’t usually look at Judaism as a tool for freedom but that’s a mistake. Whether it’s certain foods that aren’t eaten or speech that’s not spoken (lashon hara, lying, embarrassing words), or any other Torah instruction, people who choose to compel themselves to observe them very quickly learn that NOT saying “yes” to everything is actually an exercise in freedom.  We’re not born with this type of freedom; it has to be earned.  Another nugget from Patrick Henry helps articulate this point; “It is when a people forget G-d that tyrants forge their chains.” The Jewish adaptation might be, that when people forget G-d, they forge their own chains.
What chain prevents you from achieving real freedom—i.e. what’s important to you—lurk deep inside you?
Good Shabbos.
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