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Monday, 25 January 2016

Maintaining your Freedom

Daf Yomi Gittin 42

Yosef was languishing in prison in Egypt.  Each morning he would pray, ‘Hashem, please release me from this dungeon.  If only I could be a freeman once again!’
But while Yosef was davening for simple freedom, Hashem had much greater plans for him.  When he was finally let out of jail, he didn’t become a regular Joe; he was elevated to the status of royalty!  Yosef became the viceroy of Egypt, second only in command and stature to the Pharaoh himself!

The Torah states, “If an ox gores a servant or a maid, its owner shall give unto their master a fine of thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.”
They asked: If a servant was emancipated but did not receive his bill of emancipation, must the fine be paid or not?  Do we say that the Torah states, “its owner shall give unto their master a fine of thirty shekels of silver,” and this man is no longer the master; or perhaps, since the servant did not yet receive his bill of emancipation, he is still called the master?

On Pesach, we celebrate our emancipation from slavery in Egypt.   It may have been the first time in history that we experienced emancipation.  But it was not the final time.  In the modern era, the emancipation of the Jewish people took place across Western Europe throughout the nineteenth century.  No longer would we be confined to ghettos.  The world was opening up to us.  Jews were being admitted to universities.  We were gaining exposure to the culture of Europe.  Finally, we were free.

But there was something fundamentally different between our first emancipation from Egypt and our more recent emancipation from the European ghetto.  While we were celebrating and enjoying our newfound freedoms a hundred and fifty years ago, something tragically was lost in transmission.  Somehow, many of the children of the generation of emancipation ended up converting to Christianity or otherwise assimilating.  The supposed freedom of religion that was meant to be the consequence of emancipation quickly evolved into freedom from religion.  And the emancipated Jew became the lost Jew.

In other words, instead of freeing us and allowing Jewish culture and heritage to flourish, emancipation had a devastating effect on Jewish life.  How did that happen?  What went wrong?  What was different about the European emancipation, as opposed to the Egyptian emancipation?

The punchline of the Exodus story was, of course, the Giving of the Torah.  Until we received the Torah, we were like slaves lacking our bill of emancipation.   The Torah was our liberty document, teaching and guiding us how to act as free men.  Slaves and free men walk differently, speak differently, eat differently, hold themselves differently, and most of all, act differently.   It’s one thing to be physically free Israelites; it’s another thing entirely to know how to maintain that position of privilege.  The Torah provides us with the path of maintaining our special status.

And that was what the Western European and early American Jews lacked.  Yes, they were free, emancipated from the shtetl and the ghetto.  But now what?  How do you maintain your freedom and at the same time, your Judaism?  It’s not enough just to be free, you need the guidebook of freedom.  The emancipation document is the Torah, our guidebook for life.

When the Almighty freed us from Egypt, He transported us to a completely different dimension.  As His chosen nation, we transcend the limitations of this world.  That is the meaning of freedom.  We operate on a plane that is above the destiny of this physical world.   When you place your trust in Hashem, all your needs are taken care of.  Miracles happen in your life – from the big ones like the business deals that you need to break to the little ones like the parking spot that appears in the crowded lot just when you’re running late for an important meeting.   You’re not limited by this world.  You are free.

But it’s impossible to know how to act like a freeman and maintain your special status unless you have the Liberty Document.  That’s the guide to flying above the limitations of this world.  It spells out how spiritual beings conduct themselves.  It provides the guide for walking, talking, and acting like royalty.  Because that’s what you are – not just no longer a slave, but now a child of the King of Kings, which makes you a Prince or Princess of Princes and Princesses!

Yosef may have davened for simple freedom, but the Almighty had much greater plans for him. You are not just free.  Your bill of emancipation – our holy Torah – makes you royalty.   May you follow the Guide to princely behaviour and soar even higher than the highest angels!