There are many fallacies about the life of an educator, but perhaps the biggest one is that we get the summers off, essentially ten months of working and two months of not working. At the end of every school year, someone asks me what I’m doing with my two months of summer away from school, and then I get a surprised look when I explain that I spend most of that time getting ready for the next school year. While we do have vacations, shorter hours, and more flexibility, the time spent not teaching is really meant to do all of the other work that sets up the next year’s classes for success. The “freedom” of summer comes with responsibility. The same is true with growing up. I remember wanting to be in charge of my own life: bedtime, clothes, food, and all that came with moving out of my parents’ house. But, as I found out when I became an adult, that freedom came with the obligation to pay bills, grocery shop, and clean for myself. We sometimes feel bound by our current situation, only to realize that the freedom we desire brings with it restrictions of its own that just might not have been visible to us before.
This week we read parshat Vaera, the second portion of the book of Shemot (Exodus). The Israelites are deep into their slavery in Egypt, working for Pharaoh, having decrees levied on them daily about how much work they must do, how to family plan, and the like. Moses has become the leader of the Israelites and is now pressed by God to stand up to Pharaoh, the one in whose house he was raised, and ask for freedom for himself and the Israelite nation. God partners with Moshe and Aaron to send the first seven plagues and toy with Pharaoh’s heart. This parshah has Pharaoh dangling the carrot of freedom before the Israelites, only to snatch it away as they attempt to grasp it.
As the story unfolds, it is striking the way in which Moshe asks for freedom. In chapter 7, verse 16, Moshe is to go to Pharaoh and ask if the Israelites can leave. The words he is to use are “Let My people go that they may worship Me.” We often only hear the first section of this phrase, “Let My people go,” which is simple and straightforward, but the Torah text, here and throughout theparshah, connects freedom with an action. God connects freedom with worship, and ultimately, the responsibility of Torah. Pharaoh later agrees to allow the Israelites to go so they can sacrifice to and worship God.
In our parshah we learn that freedom is not the release from all obligations; rather, freedom is the ability to act for something. The Israelites’ freedom was more than release from bondage; it provided the opportunity to serve God in the ways they were commanded. So too, our freedom today does not allow us to sit back and do nothing, but to stand up and act. Freedom demands that we take advantage of our opportunities.
While it may have sounded nice to the teenage me to have complete freedom over my life, I know now that freedom from my teenage years means the necessity of bill paying. While it would be nice to have an entire summer of doing nothing, I know that the time is better spent preparing for the coming year and focusing my attention on some of the personal things I may have neglected during the year.
As we begin 2013, let’s remember to embrace the responsibility of Torah, which is not only the core of what we read in Shemot, but our entire heritage.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: John F. Kennedy once said that Israel “honors the sword of freedom.” What are some ways in which you honor your freedom both Jewishly and secularly?