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Parshas -- Pesach (5772)

Laptops and Doorstops and True Freedom

By Rabbi David Zauderer

Around this time of year, I am always saddened by the fact that so many Jews are all into celebrating Passover - with the matzah and the macaroons and the whole “shebang” – yet when it comes to the next holiday after that, the holiday of Shavuos (“The Festival of Weeks”), most of the Tribe doesn’t even know about it, let alone celebrate it.

This is quite strange because in the Torah, these two Biblically-mandated holidays - Passover, which commemorates our freedom from Egyptian bondage, and Shavuos, which commemorates our receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai – are actually linked to each other through a third Biblical commandment – Sefiras Ha’Omer (the Counting of the Omer).

As the Torah tells us in Leviticus 23:15: “You shall count for yourselves – from the morrow of the rest day, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving – seven weeks, they shall be complete …” The commentators explain that this is a commandment to count the 49 days from after the first day of Passover (referred to here in the Torah as “the rest day”) until the beginning of the Festival of Shavuos, just as our ancestors eagerly counted down the days from when they left Egypt until they would stand at Mount Sinai and receive G-d’s Torah.

Moses himself linked Passover and Shavuos when he stood in front of Pharaoh and said, “So said G-d: Send out My people that they may serve Me” (see Exodus 7:26). In other words, the purpose of the Jews’ freedom from slavery in Egypt was only so that they should serve G-d and follow His commandments.

Yet somehow most Jews have forgotten the last part of Moses’ words about serving G-d – likely due to Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie The Ten Commandments, in which he has Charlton Heston tell Yul Brynner “Let My people go!”

Maybe there is some almost subconscious reason why the whole “Shavuos/Torah/Serving G-d” thing has been virtually forgotten by the majority of Jews today. You see, Passover with its universal message of freedom and hope for the oppressed and the downtrodden resonates with the modern, progressive Jew. You know – Let My people go, save the whales, Darfur, Occupy Wall Street, etc. etc. So even if matzah and Kosher for Passover foods are about triple the price of other foods, most Jews will still put up with it because they are okay with Passover’s message (and it’s always nice to have a family get-together at Bubby’s house at least once a year).

Shavuos, on the other hand, is all about following the Torah that we received at Sinai with its 613 (!) commandments which govern every act and move and thought that a Jew makes throughout his life. Sign me up!!! No wonder the holiday was dropped around 100 years ago by many “progressive” Jews whose modern understanding of freedom simply couldn’t be reconciled with the Torah’s myriad obligations and “impositions” – and they never looked back.

Yet our Sages teach us that the opposite is true. As we learn in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) 6:2: “… for you can have no freer man than one who engages in the study of Torah”.

Yes, you read that correctly!! The Sages are telling us that you are only truly “free” if you study and follow the Torah! Yet how could this be? What kind of freedom is it when you are “obligated” to eat Kosher and to pray and to wear Tefillin and not to work on Shabbos, and another 600 or so commandments?

Allow me to explain with an analogy that I came up with a few years ago:

A very wealthy man named Michael was sitting in his living room when his ‘geek’ friend George came by for a visit. George noticed a laptop in Michael’s home and got all excited. He said, “Mike! When did you get that computer? That laptop is the most expensive and powerful machine ever made! It’s power-driven by a 686.7 GHz Intel Core Double Duo Processor, it has 5500 GBS of RAM, and it costs over $65,000. It’s got so much power and speed and information access, there’s no shortage of amazing things that you can do with it which can literally change people’s lives!! Why, with that baby you can probably find a cure for cancer! … Er, uh, by the way, Mike, what’s the laptop doing on the floor?” Michael coughed and responded, a bit nervously, “Well, you see, George, I was at Best Buy last week looking for a camera when I noticed this expensive laptop for sale. I already have a good computer that works just fine so I didn’t need it. But then I remembered the door in my home between the living room and the hallway – you see that heavy glass door over, George? – which keeps on closing on my kid’s fingers, and all the doorstops they sell at the hardware stores aren’t heavy enough to keep the door from closing. So when I saw this laptop, I knew it would make the perfect doorstop for this door – it’s very heavy, and is just the right size to fit in beneath the door to keep it open. I know it’s very expensive, but, hey, I’ve got the money, so why not?” By this time, George is turning all different colors. He says to Michael, “You can’t do that, Mike! You can’t use this incredible laptop which can practically change the world as a simple doorstop! It’s criminal!” Now it’s Mike’s turn to get upset. He says, “George, last I checked, the U.S. is a free country and I am free to do whatever I so darn please … so leave me alone!”

Now I ask you, dear readers, is Michael’s freedom in this story true “freedom”? Is the freedom to use your laptop as a doorstop a freedom to be cherished? Or is it basically the freedom to be an idiot?

Now, granted that I wouldn’t want to live in a society in which people are locked up in jail for doing idiotic things like using $65,000 laptops to keep their doors open. Yet, my point is still the same. The freedom to whatever I want – as crazy as it might be – is not a freedom to which we should aspire.

We need to know and understand that our very own brain – the seat of the neshamah (soul) and the intellect – is far more powerful and amazing than any machine IBM will ever come up with – and we can do incredible things with it like finding a cure for cancer, and changing ourselves and the world around us in incredible ways. But if we don’t know how to access all that incredible power and information – we might, G-d forbid, use that fantastic “laptop” between our shoulders as a simple doorstop or for some other insignificant, material purpose. And that would be a tragedy.

The Torah that we received at Mount Sinai is the “instruction manual” for the great supercomputer that we all carry around with us in our heads. It shows us the inner workings of the soul and the intellect. It teaches us how to use this powerful tool to do amazing things. Without the Torah, we might be “free” to use this laptop for whatever we want – even as a “doorstop” – but that is a freedom to be mourned, not cherished.

Only those who study Torah and read the manual are truly free, just as the Sages taught us.

This year, as we sit at yet another Passover Seder with family and friends commemorating our ancestors’ “freedom” from slavery over 3300 years ago, let’s not forget the second half and ultimate goal of the Exodus from Egypt – the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai only 49 days later – when we got life’s instruction manual and became truly free.

HAVE A HAPPY AND MEANINGFUL PASSOVER!

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