If you awaken to spiritual freedom, does that mean that you’ll remain free all the time? Is spiritual freedom a permanent state?
This question reminds me of before I was married, when I had different girlfriends. On one hand, they were committed relationships. On the other hand, we always had the choice to spend time together or not. At the end of the day, I was always free to go home to my own house if I wanted to. So, although there was a kind of commitment, it was nothing like being married.
Does that mean “marriage” is a permanent state in which the relationship is constant and perfect?
Of course not!
Like all living things, it’s in motion. It needs attention and nurturance. And yet, there is something that changes completely when two people commit to having one life together, to be one family.
Spiritual awakening is just like that.
At first, you may have a spiritual experience. That experience tells you something about reality; it changes your whole outlook. However, like all experiences, it’s temporary. When it fades and another experience happens, you might forget all about what you’ve learned. You’re not having the spiritual experience anymore, so you don’t have access to its truth.
You may long for that experience, you may seek it out in different ways, you may even find it. You may find it in sports, in music, in dance, whatever. But ultimately, it’s a place you visit, not the place you live. It is your girl/boyfriend, not your life partner.
This week’s reading, Parshat Mishpatim, begins with laws regarding a male Hebrew indentured servant. It says that he can work for six years but must be set free in the seventh year (Ex. 21:2):
“Sheish shamim ya’avod-
“Six years he shall work…”
The word for indentured servant is the same as the word for slave- eved. The master of the slave is called an adon- “lord”.
But these two words, eved and adon, also have a completely different connotation: God is sometimes called Adon, and a holy person is called an Eved Hashem- a Servant of God.
Seen metaphorically, then, the Hebrew eved that goes free is like someone who has a spiritual experience, but when the experience is over, s/he goes free from it. It’s only temporary.
But then the text says that if the eved doesn’t want to go free, he is brought to a doorpost, declares that he loves his adon and his new wife and children and that he wants remain an eved. His ear is then pierced against the doorpost and becomes a slave forever (Ex. 21:6):
“And he shall serve him forever…”
Metaphorically, this is one who becomes an Eved Hashem- a Servant of the Divine. It’s getting “married” to God.
But if spiritual awakening is about freedom, what does that have to do with being a servant or a spouse? Why the contradictory metaphors?
Rashi points out another contradiction in the text that will shed light on this first contradiction: In the above verse, it says:
“He shall serve him forever.”
But this contradicts another verse, which states that all Hebrew slaves are set free on the Jubilee Year, the last year in a fifty-year cycle, no matter what (Lev. 25:10):
“V’ish el mishpakhto t’shuvo-
“And you shall return each person to his family…”
To resolve this contradiction, he says that the word olam- “forever” or “eternal”- is actually another word for the Jubilee Year, because after the Jubilee Year, the status of everything completely changes. The original state of reality is gone, so everything up to the Jubilee Year, the year of freedom, is called “forever.”
So, being a “slave forever” gets you to “freedom!”
Meaning- the point of committing yourself to a life of spiritual practice is to shift out of the time-bound, thought-created sense of self, into connection with That which is Eternal- the present moment, always existing as the space of your own awareness, beyond thought.
How does that work?
Back to our text-
When it says the slave is taken to the doorpost, the word for doorpost is mezuzah- the same as the ritual scroll traditionally fastened to the doorposts of Jewish homes.
And what is the first word of the text written on the mezuzah? “Sh’ma”- “Hear”!
Hearing, unlike seeing and tasting, is the sense that we can't shut down; our ears are always open. We can't shut our ears to escape the sounds around us.
Similarly, we can't escape Reality. There's nothing but Reality, everywhere!
And yet, we create this inner resistance to Reality, and that resistance is the basis of ego- that contracted sense of self which imprisons the spirit.
To relax that resistance means to return to openness- to be an open ear, wholly with what is.
That’s the point- and the mechanism- of spiritual practice: to leave your identification with your inner resistance (ego) and awaken into your true and free nature as awareness, by "hearing" the truth of the present moment.
At some point, when you’re ready, it’s time to “get married”- to let go of your attachment to mind created reality and commit to Actual Reality. Then, this moment becomes your Lord, your Master, your God. Reality becomes your “family”- your home base- the place you live, not the place you merely visit.
Does that mean then the relationship is perfect?
Of course not! There’s risk- failure is possible. But you’ve stepped into commitment with Beloved.
And, just as relationships sometimes need coaches and therapists, so too the spiritual life is helped by spiritual teachers:
Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin, once said to his disciple, Reb Zvi of Zhidochov:
“So long as I am alive, I’m not afraid that you’ll slip from your commitment to the Divine. But afterwards- who knows?”
Said Reb Zvi: “I don’t want to live longer than you, rebbe.”
“How can you say such a thing?” protested the Seer. “You are still a young man, and I am old!”
“Rebbe,” replied Reb Zvi, “I will pray that you live forever.”
“But does mortal man live forever?” asked the Seer.
“I meant, rebbe, that you should live one hundred and twenty years, as Moshe Rabeinu (Moses Our Teacher) did,” explained Reb Zvi.
“Come now, Reb Zvi,” said the Seer, “Just a moment ago you said ‘forever,’ and now you’re saying ‘one hundred and twenty years.’ A hundred and twenty years is not forever.”
Replied Reb Zvi: “I came across the idea in some book I read that Moshe Rabeinu lived one hundred twenty years, corresponding to the number of Jubilee Years within our present six thousand year cycle. For in the Talmud it is written-
‘Shita alfei shanei havah alma-
‘Six thousand years the world will be…’
“And, in six thousand years, there are a hundred and twenty Jubilee Years.
“In the Torah, furthermore, the Jubilee is sometimes called olam- meaning, ‘forever,’ as in the passage where the Hebrew slave pierces his ear-
“And he shall serve him forever…’
Meaning, the slave serves until the Jubilee year, which is called ‘forever.’
“The point is, I will pray that your hundred and twenty years on this earth should inspire me commit forever. Like that Hebrew slave, I should make the Eternal Beloved my Lord and my family…”
“And in what book did you see that idea?” the Seer asked.
“Well, actually,” replied Reb Zvi, “It could have been mine…”
On this Shabbat Mishpatim, the Sabbath of Judgments, may we open to the one judgment now before us: Commit. Hear. Awaken. May we too write the “books” of our lives, each pointing toward this awakening, and may we support each other on our unique paths. And, may every personal transformation lead us speedily toward the evolution of humanity, to a time of true peace and mutuality.