Parshat Chol Hamoed Pesach

Torah Reading for Week of March 28 – April 3, 2010

“Freedom and Truth”

by Rabbi Elijah J. Schochet, PhD
AJRCA Professor of Talmud

On the surface the terms “freedom” and “truth” would seem to be totally unrelated, even at times antithetical to one another. One could plausibly postulate that quite often there is a negative correlation between the two.

Ask a junior high school student and he/she will tell you that freedom means being able to do whatever you feel like doing, while telling the truth is often some thing to be avoided (especially after having indulged in the former).

Enter R. Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, better known as the Kotsker Rebbe. He is associated first and foremost with the ideal of truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Indeed, truth was the singular obsession of this man’s life.

The Kotsker taught, to borrow Abraham Joshua Heschel’s matchless prose, that “every day a man must try to find the truth as if he had not known it before”, and significantly that “the truth could be reached only through utmost freedom!” For R. Menahem Mendel this meant “not to give in to any outside pressures…not to conform”.

The Kotsker, whom Heschel compared to his contemporary Soren Kierkegaard, lived his message of the truth/freedom nexus to the fullest.

Admittedly, a life of total and complete truth is not an easy life to live. Chances are one won’t be the “Mr. or Ms. Popularity” in one’s social circle. Both political parties would surely agree, although at times reluctantly, that total and consistent truthfulness will decidedly not get one elected to public office today.

However, the freedom to be true to oneself and one’s values is a special blessing to be cherished.

If a human being is trapped…be it trapped in a relationship or trapped in an occupation…and forced to live a life of pretense and dishonesty to one’s own self and principles, then that person is, to borrow the Pesach idiom, “enslaved’! One is decidedly not free. One is incarcerated in a cell of deceit. And who is to say but that this form of psycho-spiritual servitude is not more torturous than the actual enslavement of the body?

A pithy aphorism attributed to the Kotsker is especially apropos for today, the Shabbat of Pesach, the Festival of Freedom.
Declares the Kotsker:
“If I am I because I am I,
And you are you because you are you,
Then I am I and you are you.
However, if I am I because you are you,
And you are you because I am I,
Then, I am not I,
And you are not you.”

For the rabbi of Kotsk, the gift of the freedom to be able to be true to one’s true self, (for I to be truly I, and you to be truly you) is a precious one to have and to hold not only during this “Matzah Season” but throughout the entire year. However, Rabbi Menahem Mendel reminds us, it is a gift that must be safeguarded in the protective wrapping of truth.