Thoughts on Real Freedom


“Here it is Passover and I’m still fighting for my freedom!” A friend uttered those words in disgust more than twenty Passovers ago. He had defied his father’s request to get a haircut, to look “presentable” in time for the Seders. And so, his father took away the car keys, a gesture that not only denied him his beloved freedom of the open road, but reminded this struggling teenager that he was not yet master of his own life.

Real freedom is a ponderous responsibility. What did the Children of Israel do in the nascent days of their freedom? They berated Moses, “Why did you take us out of Egypt where we were fed, only to let us starve in the desert?” Those ex-slaves railed against newfound freedom, pining instead for the “comforts” of slavery. And indeed it took forty years, two generations, for them to walk what was a relatively short distance. Not because they were poor navigators, but because of the Divine understanding that two generations had to pass to erase a slave mentality, to mature Moses’ followers into a tribe of people willing to take on the rigors of freedom.

Real freedom comes with consequences. When his school vacation arrived, my son, who was then seven, began chafing under the yoke of his piano practice. “It’s vacation. I want to be free for a little bit,” he told me. I bit back the admonishments that came to mind, resolving to let nature take its course. When he sat down to play before his next piano lesson, his fingers stumbled through a song that two weeks before he had played with skill and pride.

“I don’t understand it, ” he said full of impatience, “I know this song.” We both learned something about freedom that night. He learned that being free from a task has its price. And I learned that giving him the freedom to stumble might, just might, help him walk more sturdily the next time.

It is hard for us to let our children go, to free them from the voice of our experience. Yet just as often, adult children have difficult times freeing themselves from their parents’ voices. A friend related to me recently that as much as she loves tennis, every time she misses a shot, her father’s voice echoes in her mind, “No. No. Bad hit. No, do it like this. No. No. No.” Today she struggles to continue playing a game she has come to love as an adult because she is still trapped by the ghost of a decades-old voice telling her she doesn’t play well.

Liberating ourselves from those ancient inner voices takes courage. For my friend it means realizing that missing a shot means missing a shot and nothing more. It means that she can see herself with her own eyes, not her father’s. For me it means letting my daughter ice skate.

Ice-skating has always terrified me. In second grade a classmate invited me to her ice skating party. When my mother dropped me off at the ice rink, she cautioned me to put my hands in my lap if I fell so no one would run over my fingers with their skate blades. It seems that happened to someone in my grandfather’s village in Russia. I was so busy thinking about severed fingers that I never made it around the rink.

I live in Michigan where ice is a way of life. My daughter, who was four at the time, had been pestering me for some time to take her to the ice rink so that she could learn to skate. I finally relented. The ice scared me, but I didn’t want it to scare my daughter. Lacing up the rented skates on her tiny feet, I thought of the apocryphal peasant who went through life minus a digit. I fought against delivering any parting words of caution. I kept my lips sealed save for giving her a kiss before she went onto the ice. Resolute, determined, she threaded her way among the other skaters, circling clockwise again and again, never falling, tethered as if by some invisible second hand.

When she came off forty minutes later I don’t know who was more excited: her, for having skated, or me for keeping the memory of the peasant at bay and thereby giving her free rein on the ice. I suppose some would say that the true test would be for me to lace on some skates and give it a whirl. But for now, I am content enough to have broken the chain of concern that kept a young girl from gliding so many years ago.

At other times what we perceive to be heavy chains are actually golden bonds that grace our lives. I keep the following poem written by my mother, tacked to the wall beside my desk to remind me how fleeting the priceless bonds of motherhood really are:

In my perfect apartment

Where are the children?

They’d climb up into my lap

As if they were monkeys

And I were a tree

And they’ d rest in the boughs and branches

That were my breast and arms.

Sticky, imperious, moist,

They’d appropriate my moments of solitude

Unto themselves and I’d yearn

For the sterile peace that deadens

Me now.

It’s quiet now

in my imperfect apartment.*

*Dorothea Bourke

My mother’s poem traces the duality, the blessing and burden of motherhood. So it is with mitzvot or commandments. Although I do not observe Shabbat in the same manner as does the Orthodox family down the street, I recognize the beautiful logic in many Shabbat observances. How lovely to have “permission” to ignore the ringing of the phone! How wonderful to know that one is freed from tossing another load into the laundry or catching up on unfinished chores. I drive on Shabbat, but as little as possible. And while I might call friends or family over the weekend, our Shabbat meal is now sacrosanct, never interrupted by the telephone. I know that what are often perceived by some as anachronistic chains are in truth tiny, invisible scissors powerful enough to cut through the rigors of our weekday routines and weekday mindsets.

Frequently, after rejecting parental, religious, or societal strictures, we are free to reclaim them as our own. My son is a bit more conscientious about his piano practicing now. Remembering my mother’s poem, I catch myself when the pressures of child rearing threaten to overwhelm me. And my friend whose father took away the wheels? He will soon complete his rabbinical studies at a yeshiva in Far Rockaway.

Chag Sameach-Happy Holiday.

Debra Darvick wrote this feature for the on-line magazine Jewish Family & Life!

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