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In Search of Happiness Through the Parsha of Bo

Published on Friday January 11th, 2019

The reading of this week's Parsha, which describes the liberation of the Jews from the throes of Egyptian servitude, is enough to warm the reader’s heart.

The verses in our text are widely known because they are a component of the Pesach seder, which everyone is so attached to. This week, we focus our attention on one of the commandments given by God at the time of the Egyptian exodus, specifically that of instituting a calendar. In so doing, we examine the spiritual implications of the correlation between freedom, on the one hand, and the cycle of time, on the other.

The beginning of the Jewish calendar thus coincides with the attainment of freedom. The Torah tells us that shortly before leaving Egypt, God ordered the Bnei Israel to start counting the months, beginning with the month of Nissan: "The Lord spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt, in these words: "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you."(Shemot 12, 1-2)

This juxtaposition between freedom and time is highly significant. It suggests that time is only relevant to a man who is free to manage his schedule at leisure. When a man is enslaved and subordinated to a master, whose orders he is forced to execute, time does not mean anything to him, as he is unable to use it according to his will. Therefore, it’s irrelevant to institute a calendar in a situation of oppression and enslavement.

The purpose of the exodus from Egypt was specifically intended to restore freedom to the Jewish people, including the leisure to dispose of their time at will. But the Torah pushes this reflection further. Indeed, it could be taken for granted that one man is freed from slavery, he becomes a master of his time and is therefore free. Why give a specific command on this seemingly obvious principle?

Our tradition warns us against the illusion that consists in comprehending the beautiful notion of "freedom" as an absolute carte blanche to do what we want. In fact, if a man perceives freedom as an entitlement to give free rein to his instincts, impulses, and desires, he quickly becomes enslaved to himself. This is the danger of all addictions, particularly, in their most modern of forms: the addiction to screen time. Our contemporary era ambushes us into various illusions of freedom, which are really powerful alienations and genuine enslavements.

The Torah provides a specific command, ordering a man to count time and reach the understanding that being free to dispose of his time is a right but also a responsibility. Freedom must allow a man to harmonize with the essence of his being. Time should serve him as a means to synchronize with the root of his soul, nourish it, live in harmony with it and cultivate a fruitful dialogue with Hashem.

Also, the first method to exercise human freedom lies in the use a man makes of his time. Every moment of life is an extraordinary opportunity, a real miracle. Every moment of life that the Almighty grants to man is infinitely precious and must be exploited constructively.

An American journalist once interviewed Rebbetzin Jungreis who had endured the Shoah and had experienced a very intense life. The journalist asked her, "What was the most important moment of your life? And the Rebbetzin replied: "Now! "

She thus declared her conviction that every moment of life must be valued and exploited to the utmost. Every moment enables man to build, to progress and to transmit. The human spirit often tends to narrow down the horizon of possibilities offered by time. This is why the Torah reminds us of the momentous importance of each moment.

That being said, we must also recognize that man is not the master of all the activities and obligations that bind him and occupy his schedule. Freedom may lie in the way he views his time and on his perspective on time management, and on how he perceives his activities.

Indeed, one same activity may be given a radically different meaning, depending on the attitude a man attaches to it. It can be an unbearable constraint and a frustrating experience, or a source of spiritual elevation and inner joy.

For example, a professional activity may be experienced as an unbearable form of alienation, or as a precondition for financial autonomy, allowing a man to provide for his family and loved ones, to practice charity and support spreading the Torah, impact his home’s environment and contribute towards his wife’s serenity.

Likewise, raising children or assisting elderly parents can be experienced as an oppressive and stifling constraint or as genuine happiness. Contributing to the well-being of one's loved ones and assisting one’s elderly parents, each of whom is a link in the thread of generations, is a response to the prescriptions of the Torah and an avenue to acquire great merit.

Thus it was necessary that the attainment of freedom from servitude simultaneously prescribe to the Jewish People with a new legislation on the use of time. A man is free to decide how to occupy his time, but he also has the option to attribute positive meaning to the events that occur in his life. That is to say, seeking to sanctify God’s name at every moment of his existence, even if he did not voluntarily choose each of these occurrences and activities.

Shabbat Shalom!

Jérome TOUBOUL - © Torah-Box

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