By Dr. Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels
Parashat Nasso / פרשת נשא
(This will apply to this week’s Parsha if you are in Israel, or next week’s if you are in the U.S.)
What is freedom? Our consumerist culture would have us believe that freedom is about having access to many choices and the ability to decide which choice to make. It is about what the Vitebsker calls choice/possibility (reshut) and desire (ta’avah). It would have us believe that buying that car, those clothes, that music, or fulfilling any one of the many desires advertising cultivates, will make us free. Yet do they? Does a choice of a hundred different cereals and the financial means to buy whichever one we want produce freedom?
Or, do we experience freedom when we are not caught in desire and choice, when instead we are simply aligned with the truth, acting as we do because we know that is what is called for in that moment, not because we decide to act that way. In fact, one of my teachers explained, the more we practice, the deeper we practice, the less choice there is. We simply naturally respond appropriately to whatever situation arises. Or, similarly, Sylvia Boorstein once shared concerning a teacher of hers whom she asked about the nature of compassion. The teacher responded that there was no such thing as compassion. There was just seeing a need and responding to that need. That is, on a certain level, perhaps the whole way we think about freedom and choice is misleading and illusory. This, the Vitebsker is telling us here, is the real meaning of mitzvot. They are not commandments in the sense of something that overcomes your own individual will. Rather, when one is aligned, they are simply what one feels compelled to do, not by some external force, but simply because that is what the moment calls for.
When I am grounded in love, there is not a lot of choice. The loving action in any particular circumstance is usually pretty clear. When I am lost in fear, anger, or pain, then choice is real and present, most significantly the choice as to whether to succumb to those mind-heart states or to relate to them with awareness and compassion. When I am free — free from delusion, free from suffering, free from confusion, free from anger, free from fear — there isn’t much choice. When I am attuned and aligned, in touch with who I really am, then there isn’t much choice, but there is tremendous freedom. There is quiet, there is peace, there is ease. Choice arises precisely when ease and peace are not present. When we are anxious, uncertain, and grasping for what might satisfy us: do I want TV, chocolate, Facebook, sex?
How do we reach this state of freedom which is in fact choiceless? We can’t think ourselves there, but we can practice our way there. If our heart isn’t there, if our body isn’t there, if our awareness isn’t there, there are always a thousand rationalizations for whatever choices we want to make. Our ‘wisdom’ will simply mold itself to shape of our vessel at this moment, with all its confusion, grasping, and fear. But if we practice, if we are silent, dropping into a more intimate awareness of our heart-mind-body-soul, restraining our impulse to run away and ‘choose’ some distraction, allowing our natural embodied practical wisdom to emerge, then we touch that place of freedom beyond choice. It is just a question of practice. It is a question of habituating ourselves to a different way of relating to our experience, of habituating ourselves to the silence of restraint, the silence of awareness, the silence of listening for what we are called to do rather than deciding what to do. It is the silence of attunement and alignment rather than the hubbub of choice and will. It is peace in action.