Nearly every female I know has at some point in their lives stood before their closet (perhaps for more time than they’d like to admit) and thought to themselves, “I have nothing to wear.” As husbands and fathers can attest, most of the time, this feeling does not accurately reflect reality. Usually, the “guilty” closet is filled to capacity with perfectly wearable attire. Deep down, it’s not really about the clothing; rather, it is an internal feeling of lack and limitation.
Juxtapose this scene with the following: You are going on vacation and have packed a small carry-on for your two day trip. This valise has severely limited your clothing options, yet rather than deliberating over what to wear each morning, you quickly choose an outfit and are free to enjoy the rest of the day. Although you have a very narrow selection of clothing, that limitation liberates you.
This idea that structure and boundaries ultimately create freedom is a core concept in the Torah.
When my baby was first learning how to walk, she would stumble around in the most adorable (yet frightening) way. To prevent our little “drunken sailor” from tumbling down the stairs, we installed a baby gate that remained closed whenever she was on the second floor. If open, I had to watch her every move in order to prevent an accident. Once the gate was securely closed, she had the freedom to walk (insert: stumble) around at will.
Although counterintuitive to our laissez-faire, free-thinking mentality, boundaries (such as the gate at the top of the stairs), actually bring freedom. The Torah has a built-in framework of boundaries which guide us on the path of life, and as humans, we thrive off that structure.
In a recent lecture, I shared the following analogy: We all know that the seat belt and engine are very important to the function and safety of driving; however, there is one essential piece of equipment without which you would never think of stepping foot in the car – the brakes.
Yet, brakes are the most restrictive element! They can prevent the car from moving at all. It is these very brakes, however, that give the driver control to travel anywhere.
As I write this article, I cannot help but consider the following. The rules of writing mandate thousands of boundaries and tremendous structure. There are a finite number of letters to use in the English language, and we have rules regarding their combinations. There are spelling, syntax, grammar, and punctuation requirements. Sometimes I want to speedily type away, ignoring all these rules in order to get my thoughts on paper. Yet, if I were to throw the writing rulebook out the window, my work would appear as incomprehensible jargon. I have to slow down and use my brakes, to look back and edit. If I want the readers’ imaginations to be able to soar while reading the print itself, there has to be structure. This piece was edited many times over by more than one editor before sending to print. Freedom within a framework of structure encourages creativity like nothing else.
Even though boundaries grant us freedom to create and grow, human nature often resists it. A student came to me looking for guidance. She confessed, “Sarah, I feel guilty saying this, but I feel so suffocated by all the laws of the Torah; I just want to give up.”
Frankly speaking, this was not the first time I had heard this sentiment; it seems to be a widely-experienced feeling. The question that begs to be asked is, if structure is so freeing, why does human nature tend to feel stifled by it? How can we appreciate the way that mitzvot guide our lives, rather than feel suffocated by them?
We often assume that without structure, our lives would be easier, yet crave that very structure once it is gone. Studies show that when humans are given unlimited choices, it causes them to freeze up, unable to make a choice at all. This phenomenon is called Analysis Paralysis and has been termed “Paradox of Choice” by Psychologist Barry Schwartz.
Although counterintuitive, salesmen are trained to only give customers a few choices because there is a higher likelihood that the shopper will make a purchase when options are limited. Research has proven that when given too many options, customers make no selection at all.
Children are a prime example of resisting yet needing structure. When given enough space to flourish within the confines of set boundaries, children know their limits and start to learn and discover their capabilities. The same holds true throughout our lives.
Even with the evidence that structure and boundaries lead to a happier and more fulfilling life, it can be hard to translate this knowledge into our day to day lives. We all sometimes feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities and expectations of being a Torah Jew. Truth be told, Judaism and its myriad of laws can be overwhelming. It does require a lot from us, but societally we often put more restrictions that necessary upon ourselves. For example, many people take their Shabbat preparations to the extreme: cooking elaborate Shabbat meals and preparing extravagant table settings that require so much time and energy that they feel worn out by the time Shabbat actually arrives. Yet, the Torah actually mandates that it is better for there to be a simple meal for Shabbos than an elaborate meal created with anguish. (Pesachim 112a) We must learn to discern between societal pressures and actual Torah requirements. Take a step back and make sure that what you are doing is necessary in order to ensure that your religious observance feels manageable.
Secondly, if Judaism and the mitzvot feel too overwhelming, try taking a step-by-step approach. If we are feeling stifled, perhaps we have taken too much upon ourselves, whether for social or religious reasons. Take a step back and reflect on your choices to see what changes can be made. Torah is meant to bring joy to our lives, and if the breadth of it feels overwhelming, there are steps we can all take towards moving in a positive direction.
G-d is our ultimate parent, and understands the psychology of the human mind. He has created and gifted us the perfect framework called Torah. Torah, like a car with proper brakes, gives us structure to truly zoom ahead.