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Monday, 28 December 2015

Is your life controlled by I, Robot?

Daf Yomi Gittin 13


Every young adult in the western world is familiar with the heart-wrenching tale of the British schoolchildren stranded on a desert island in Lord of the Flies.  When the boys initially land, Ralph takes the lead and maintains order and a semblance of civilization.  But in no time at all, Jack manages to lure the other kids over to his tribe. 

Why do they follow Jack?  Because instead of rules, he offers them freedom.  Instead of rationed supplies, he offers them fresh, tasty meat.  Instead of work building huts, he offers them a life of fun and play. 

Which life would you choose?

Mishnah:  If a person instructed, ‘Give this bill of divorce to my wife,’ or ‘Give this bill of emancipation to my servant,’ and then wished to retract his instruction in either case, he may do so, according to Rabbi Meir.  And the Sages say: He may retract his divorce, but not the emancipation, since one may benefit a person in their absence, but one may only disadvantage them in their presence.
Rabbi Meir said to them: But if the master is a cohen, emancipation of the servant would impede him from eating tithes (and thus emancipation is not always an advantage)!
Gemara: Rabbi Meir’s reasoning works with regards to the servant of a cohen.  But what would he say about the servant of an Israelite?
Rabbi Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak answers: Emancipation impedes his ability to consort with a Canaanite maidservant.
The Gemara ask: On the contrary, he is now permitted to marry a freewoman!
The Gemara answers: The servant would rather the loose life.  It is cheap.  It is available. And it is unbarred.

In Pirkei Avos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches, “The only free man is one who occupies himself in Torah.”  How does Torah make you free?

Let’s take Shabbos, for example.  Throughout the week, we are slaves to our work, to our emails, to our Facebook and Twitter feeds.  Did you know, the average person checks their smartphone more than a hundred times a day?!

And then the moment of Shabbos arrives.  We light the candles and life instantly transforms.  We are freed from all the worries of the week.   Everyone else is still bound by their instruments and machines.   The world around us has been overtaken by I, Robot even without realizing!   But we are free!

So why don’t more people break free from their enslavement and enter the oasis in time of Shabbos?  Because Shabbos has rules and regulations.  If you want to reap the benefits of Shabbos, it requires adherence to a certain code of conduct.  And our nature human nature is to avoid rules and restrictions.    Instead of recognizing that these regulations are freeing, most people view them as restrictive. 

Imagine for a moment what life in general would be like without the rule of law.  People would steal one another’s property.  And so there’d be no point owning anything, because it could always be taken from you by someone bigger and stronger.  People would drive their cars at crazy speeds.  And so it would be unsafe to attempt to cross the road.  There would be havoc and chaos everywhere.  Why do we have the rule of law?  Because laws are emancipating.  True freedom comes from a system of rules and regulations.

So too with the freedom of Shabbos.  The rules are not restrictions; they are tools of emancipation.  These tools protect the sanctity and freedom of the Shabbos, so that we can truly enjoy the holy day.  Imagine there was no restriction on cell phones on Shabbos – would you truly be able to relish our beloved oasis in time?

And similarly with every facet of Torah observance: “The only free man is one who occupies himself in Torah.”  Why?  Because the Torah provides a set of guidelines that free you from the constraints of this world.  When you place your life in the Almighty’s hand, you are no longer subject to the challenges and difficulties of this world.  You don’t need to worry about parnassah (livelihood), because you know that G-d is in control.  You don’t need to worry about health issues, because you know that G-d is in control.   

So why don’t more people emancipate themselves?  Because they are just like the servant in our Gemara or the boys on the island.  They prefer a life that is “loose, available, and unbarred.”

But such a life is “cheap.”   And you get to a point when you ask yourself, ‘Okay, so I can do anything I want, no holds barred.  But what’s the point of it all?  Is there any meaning to life?’

The Anglo world (yes, even America!) loves the British royal family.  What is it about royalty that impresses us?   We realize that somehow they are in a completely different league to everyone else.  They are regular people, but they are royals!   There’s a certain je ne sais quoi mystique about them.

To maintain their positions of mystique and privilege, princes and princesses need to watch their every move.  You can’t act like a regular person on the street when you are royalty!  If you want to be a child of the King of kings, free from the world, and stand head and shoulders above the lives of the bondsmen around you, you must be prepared to live a life of royalty.  Spiritual royalty means rising above a life that is cheap and easy.

Free yourself from this world.  Don’t be seduced by the lures of a quick fix.  May you merit living a life of spiritual royalty!