Free(dom) during Covid

By Rabbi Elchonon Chaikin, Chabad of Greater Dayton

It was one year ago, on March 1, 2020, that my wife, Mussie, and I landed back in Dayton with a group of nine Jewish teens from the annual International CTeen Shabbaton. It was an incredible weekend, full of Jewish pride, learning and socializing. As I got off the plane and turned on my phone, a notice came in: the first positive case of Covid-19 had been detected in New York state.

Little could we imagine then how our lives and the world would change.

So much has changed and is still changing. Nothing seems certain anymore. Our positive outlook always seems to feel that we are almost over the bump. The negative outlook tries to convince us that life will never be as good as it once was.

We are constantly struggling to find a sense of stability in our current situation and yearn for something that will free us from our misery and despair. “I’ll be fine once my gym opens up.” “We miss the extended family dinners.” “I need to get back into a routine of going to work instead of working from home.” Do any of these phrases sound familiar?

The Jewish people are resilient. We have suffered before and triumphed in every struggle. Our birth as a people begins as a story of resilience and overcoming struggle: the Exodus from Egypt. In Egypt we were slaves, and Pesach (Passover) celebrates our freedom. No longer subservient to Pharaoh in Egypt, we were now a free nation.

What was the first thing the newly-minted Jewish nation did after leaving Egypt?

They began a 50-day count toward receiving the Torah.

Why would a nation, just freed from the bondage of Egypt, immediately accept a Torah filled with rules and regulations, obligations and prohibitions? What type of freedom is that? Why trade in one ruler for another?

If you ask a teenager what freedom is, they might say something like, “Doing whatever I want without my parents telling me what to do.” As an adult, that sounds rather childish (after all, it is something children say). The things our parents told us as children were to steer us in the right direction and help us grow to be functional and productive members of society.

So here is my explanation of freedom. I love watching “how-to” videos and manuals. Trying to figure out how to build something or to do something without solid practical knowledge or a good set of instruments is extremely frustrating. Watching those videos gives me a high. They give me the tools to accomplish what I need to. I can build stuff from Ikea, change my own tire, do my own taxes, trade my own stocks, and even grow my own tomatoes. All the things that I have always wanted to but didn’t know how, I learned how to do them from a manual (of sorts). Does that sound counterintuitive? No. It’s logical. We all do that.

The Torah is actually a manual. It’s not a book of restrictions and commandments. It’s a how-to guide that navigates us to where we want to go.

Our souls feel trapped in our body because our souls are our identity and the body is like a jail that chains us to physical needs and doesn’t allow our identity to be free. The Torah, then, is a navigation system on how to go free. It tells us how to use the body so it becomes the channel for goodness that our souls need to express themselves.

The Torah anchors our lives so we don’t get carried away by the various storms of hardship and confusion that the world usually deals us. It guides us too, for every mitzvah brings us one step closer to inner freedom and every prohibition makes sure we don’t go off the wrong way and further our journey of personal entrapment.

Over this past year, many have felt trapped inside their homes. Their talents were stifled and they are looking for ways to express their true identity. Torah and mitzvah is the best way to do so. It is timeless and its path does not get detoured by a pandemic.

I have seen this in my professional life as I have started more Torah classes than ever before with those searching for meaning and direction. It has opened my eyes to this immutable truth: Torah is the true safe space away from this pandemic, and really, anything.

I urge you to do the same.

Torah study is available in so many ways. You can now tap into so many online resources or virtual classes. If that doesn’t do it for you, reach out and we can help you find a tailored and personal study path.

This Pesach, celebrate your freedom by tapping into the user manual God gave us when we became free as a nation 3,333 years ago.

To read the complete March 2021 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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