Sunday, May 6, 2012

Find the Cost of Freedom

Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.
                                    -Robert Frost

Back in 1989, cultural critic Greil Marcus wrote a terrific essay on “The Myth of the Open Road.”  In it, he surveys the vast corpus of rock and roll “road songs” from Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” Marcus notes that this is an almost inexhaustible genre, drawing from the (mostly male) American myth of boundless freedom.  In these songs, the road is a place of no responsibilities, no burdens, no map.  The music celebrates going wherever and whenever you want.

Marcus’s point is that the myth of the open road is just that—a fantasy.  Real life does not work this way.  In Marcus’s own words: “Sooner or late you’re going to have to figure out where you want to go, which means you have to acknowledge that you start from somewhere, that you’re not absolutely free.  You’ll carry the baggage of your place and time with you.  You’ll never get rid of it.  You can go anywhere only if you come from nowhere, and no one comes from nowhere.”

Our Jewish tradition does not exult the fantasy of the open road.  For us, freedom is a means and not an end—an opportunity to take on holy obligations and responsibilities.  In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, God instructs us to number the days between Pesach and Shavuot.  This seven week period is known as sefirat ha-omer, the counting of the omer.  By marking these days, we draw an explicit connection between our liberation from Egypt (at Pesach) and our acceptance of the Torah, fifty days later, at Mt. Sinai (on Shavuot).  As commentator Nehama Leibowitz puts it: “The exodus was not an end in itself but purely the means of freeing Israel from human bondage, enabling them to shoulder the divine yoke of the Torah and its commandments.  The truly free person is the one committed to Torah.”  We move from “freedom from” to “freedom for and to.”  Emancipation is just the beginning.  To remain stuck in this stage is to be ever the haughty child declaiming, “You’re not the boss of me.” 

We Jews have a higher calling.  Our challenge is to use our freedom to take on the sacred responsibility of repairing the world.  As Kathleen Norris puts it, in her lovely book, The Cloister Walk: “What looks to so many people like restriction ends in freedom. . .  To employ yet another analogy, I’ll use Robert Frost’s famous comment that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.  An ordered life, a disciplined life, is not lived at the price of freedom.  One might even hold that freedom is enhanced as the relationships in which I find myself are enriched.  That would explain how we might be persuaded that our greatest freedom is found in our relationship with God.

This is our Jewish road.

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