Most females I know have stood before their closet and thought, I have nothing to wear! As the men in their lives can attest, most of the time, this feeling does not reflect reality.
Now imagine you are going on vacation and packed only a small bag for the short trip. This carry-on severely limits the clothing options, yet rather than spending time agonizing in front of the luggage worrying over what to wear, you quickly choose an outfit and are free to enjoy the vacation. The luggage carries much less than what is in your closet, but that limitation somehow liberates you.
This idea, that structure and boundaries ultimately create freedom, is a core concept in the Torah.
When our daughter was learning to walk, she stumbled around like a drunken sailor. In order to prevent her from falling down the stairs, we installed a gate that remained securely locked whenever she was on the second floor. If it was ever open, I had to stay very close to her to prevent an accident. However, once the gate was securely closed, the entire second floor was free for her to walk around at will.
Similarly, the most essential piece of equipment in a car are the brakes. Without brakes, one would never even consider beginning a drive. Although the most restrictive element, it is this piece of equipment that gives the driver confidence and control to travel anywhere safely.
Although counterintuitive, boundaries 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.
Dr. Edith Edgar, an Auschwitz survivor and Psychiatrist, shares in her book, The Choice, that after liberation, the survivors walked out of the gates of Auschwitz physically free. Right afterward, however, a shocking number of people turned around and walked right back in. Although they were physically liberated, they understandably felt they had nowhere to go.
This phenomenon occurs all the time, particularly emotionally. Many of us impose psychological slavery upon ourselves, as our most crippling thoughts can come from within. Sometimes we shackle ourselves to the past. We control the ability to unlock our handcuffs—we just have to know how. If we don’t use structure to hone ourselves in, we risk remaining in the past forever instead of moving forward in any life circumstance.
This is the link between Pesach and Shavuot. On Pesach, we share the story of liberation from slavery. To celebrate Shavuot, we bask in the greatness of the Torah, whose structure enabled us to transform from slaves to a strong nation.
Similarly, the Torah provides us all with specific tools on how to experience freedom in every situation. Here are four ways to become more mindful of our freedom.
Seeing the Good
In the Torah we learn that Yosef’s brothers sold him into slavery, and he was placed on a caravan to Egypt. Rather than turning to anger and devastation regarding his situation, Yosef hatzaddik magnanimously focused on gratitude and positivity. Most caravans carried foul-smelling tar, but the one Yosef rode on smelled of sweet spices. He profusely thanked Hashem for the gift of a pleasant-smelling caravan, rather than a tar-filled one.
The Torah provides a plethora of opportunities for gratitude each day, from prayer to blessings over our children and food. There are even blessings to recite over thunder, lightning, and natural disasters. When we focus on the good, it provides a lifeline to float over even the most turbulent waters. We learn from Yosef that our sense of freedom can come from our internal thoughts, rather than our external circumstances.
Ein Od Milvado, There is Only Hashem
Knowing that everything in the world is actually Hashem’s will manifested reflects our ability to recognize that everything is orchestrated by Hashem. Every aspect of the story of Egypt, beginning with Yosef’s slavery, was leading towards redemption and the giving of the Torah. These were critical moments that transformed us from slaves into a nation. Recognizing this can help us get through any challenge.
This tool can reconcile even small mishaps that occur in our lives. A friend of mine once traveled to a kosher winter program for vacation. She prepared overnight oats with blueberries and chia seeds in order to eat it for breakfast on the airplane. Unfortunately, TSA forced her to toss it before passing through security. She was hungry and bothered, but snapped out of it, rationalizing that for whatever reason, Hashem decided that her breakfast plan wasn’t meant to be. Perhaps it would have made her sick, or she would have spilled it. She increased her trust in Hashem by thinking, Ein od milvado. Sure enough, next morning, the hotel was serving breakfast—overnight oats wrapped individually with chia seeds and blueberries! She was overjoyed, and took it as a love tap from Hashem.
She could have sulked in disappointment on the airplane, rather than enjoying the fact that she was going on vacation. Yet because she remembered that everything—even limitations and boundaries—is from Hashem, she enjoyed a more relaxed airplane ride and vacation.
This concept can also apply to our relationship with others. When someone else frustrates us, they are merely serving as Hashem’s messenger. There is a famous analogy of a person using a stick to irritate a dog. The animal may bite the stick and growl at it, but the stick is not the perpetrator; rather, the person holding it is.
So too, everything stems from Hashem. When another person creates a challenge in our life, we must turn to the Source, Hashem, and learn from it.
Stop the Mental Games
Any situation we find ourselves can either bring us joy or torment us. The freedom of choice stems from within.
Later, while my friend was on the beach in Florida with her husband on their vacation, they sat on the first two available lounge chairs they saw. At one point, my friend noticed that the chairs they were sitting on were actually an older model, and that the hotel had newer beach chairs just in front of them. Before they had a chance to move, another couple sat down on the newer chairs she was eyeing.
My friend was slightly irritated. As they were getting up to leave at the end of the day, she overheard the “chair thief” say to her husband, “Honey, it’s ironic! Those older-looking beach chairs were actually more comfortable than these newer ones!”
My friend could not believe it! This time she was shown another perspective, but how often do we sulk over an “if only” circumstance and never see the other side? We must recognize that the grass is not always greener, and be satisfied with the metaphoric chair we have been given.
We will never know what could have been, and such thoughts can destroy our current happiness. Our present is great, and exactly as it is supposed to be.
One of my students shared the story of a family feud. The anger is so intense and the chasm so wide that the mere mention of this family member sends her spiraling. She explained that one Friday afternoon the name came up, and her entire Shabbos was ruined. She dwelled and turned to food for comfort, ultimately overeating and creating more frustration for herself.
Why would we give another human that much power over our thoughts? Instead, choose forgiveness, and give the power over to Hashem.
Hashem is the ultimate model of forgiveness. Hashem split the sea and redeemed us from slavery, despite our lowest depths. We had reached the 49th level of tumah—impurity—yet He brought us to freedom and gifted us the Torah. Forgiveness frees us, rather than the other person, and serves as a gift to ourselves.
Freedom stems from within. Whatever is going on externally matters not because what we can create inside is infinitely more powerful.
The Torah is our braking system in life, which allows us the freedom of mind no matter where we are. With these four Torah tools—seeing the good, Ein od milvado, mental shifts, and forgiveness—we can be anywhere, physically or emotionally, and experience true freedom. In Egypt, Israel, or amidst a global pandemic, no matter the surroundings, we can be mentally free.
 Rashi on Bereishis 37:25