Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Parshat HaChodesh Free at Last?

Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Parshat HaChodesh
Free at Last?
This Shabbos is Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the Hebrew month) and Parshat HaChodesh.  In the Passover Haggadah we ask, “Perhaps we should start telling about the miracles of leaving Egypt on the first day of (the Hebrew month of) Nissan?  It seems that the month of Nissan is a time when it is appropriate to talk about freedom; the entire month is devoted to our struggle to attain personal freedom. Therefore, it behooves us to talk about and define freedom.
Someone once observed that nations that have the word “free” or “democratic,” in their names, probably aren’t either of them. Consider the Free Republic of Albania or the Democratic Republic of (East) Germany?  They were neither free nor democratic.  Freedom is probably one of the most abused words in common parlance.
Does freedom mean that consenting adults can do whatever they want? More accurately, that would be called license-but it’s not necessarily freedom.  How should we define freedom? Before doing so, let’s say what it is not. All would agree the tyranny is not freedom.
Some refer to a phenomenon called the Tyranny of Cool. The scenario goes something like this. A (presumed) cool guy lives in Manhattan. When he was looking to purchase a dog, he pondered which breed to buy. The most important criterion was that passersby should remark, “Wow, that’s a cool dog.”  When he was in the market for a car, although there were many considerations such as a quiet and powerful motor, a sturdy frame, comfortable and fashionable interior design, and cost, the most critical was the prerequisite that those who saw him driving would remark, “wow, that’s a cool car.”  Finally, after realizing how shallow his thought process was, he eventually realized that even his choice of friends must pass the test of “cool”.  That’s when he came to the conclusion that he had become a slave to “cool”.  This seemingly cool guy was free to do whatever he chose, but was he really free?
Here’s another example of lack of freedom. People who are struggling economically but make bar mitzvahs and weddings way beyond their means.  If someone is compelled by the pressure of what others will say, is (s)he really free?
We set goals. Whether the goal is to lose weight or keep to a schedule, or learn a small bit of something Jewish every day or refrain from speaking loshon hora (derogatory speech), whatever the goal is, when we find that we are unable to resist the temptation that keeps us from reaching the goal, we realize that we are not really free; we are slaves to comfort, routine, laziness, and just bad behavior. If we can’t make and keep goals to help us grow as individuals, families, and communities, can we really consider ourselves free?
Who is the truly free person? The late Rabbi Noah Weinberg gave a working, realistic definition. He said, Freedom is the ability to do what we really want to do (i.e. what’s best for us) and not what we feel like doing.  It’s a life long struggle to attain and that’s the freedom we refer to as it relates to Passover. For example, if you want to work out, but don’t feel like getting off the couch, your next action-or lack of-will determine whether you are free or not. Do you have the ability to do what you really want to or will you simple revert to your default and do what  feels good at the moment?
In the Haggadah we say, “this is the bread of affliction (or poverty)…” What does the bread of affliction – poverty- have to do with freedom (the theme of Passover)?  Maharal (1512-1609) said that once we attain freedom, then we are like royalty. The same way as a monarch can do as (s)he pleases, so too can the truly free person do as (s)he pleases. As a nation, when the Jewish people were freed, they became like royalty because they were now free to choose their destiny.  He explains that Matzah is the bread of poverty because it is merely flour and water and not dependent on any outside taste ( i.e. eggs or fruit juice). Matzah  is similar to a poor person, who has only himself and G-d, but no possessions.
It’s great to possess wealth but if our happiness and peace of mind is dependent on it, if it becomes our self-identity, then we become slaves to our possessions.  It’s important to take the advice of our friends but if we know that it’s not best for us and do it because of peer pressure, then we are slaves to the approval of others.  If we look deeper into Maharal’s words we can understand his message: to be dependent on any finite object or being is bondage.
Are you free to choose to be a spiritual Jew? Are you scared of the ridicule you might endure by being seen doing a mitzvah or defending a traditional Jewish value in a conversation when others around you seem to be ridiculing it? Are you frightened to mention how meaningful lighting Shabbos candles is to you-it might even be the highlight of your week-or how going to a morning minyan and putting on tefillin made you feel more connected to your Judaism? Are you scared to mention that you believe in G-d? Are you afraid to defend Israel when someone is trashing it?
Thus Friday evening begins the Hebrew month of Nissan. Its theme is freedom and our traditional teaches us that it has a unique spiritual potential to help us become free. Passover has much food, fun, and family but its most important aspect is freedom.
May this month be one of personal and collective freedom for us all.
Good Shabbos.
(based on a discourse by Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Blumenfeld)

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Good Shabbos


Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center