4 Nisan 5774
4 April 2014
This week our students and faculty returned from Exploration Week with renewed energy and vigor. As we prepare for the Passover holiday, we see connections between the spiritual and educational themes of Passover and the experiences many of our students and teachers had last week.
Gann’s Dean of Students Laila Goodman led a program called “Off the Grid, On the Earth,” an outdoor, nature-oriented trip to upstate New York. The diverse group of 15 students from across the Jewish spectrum—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular—also included three vegetarians and two students who had very specific diet requirements. The chaperones included a traditional, Shabbat-observant rabbi, a “non-halachik” Conservative Jew, and a self-defined, secular Israeli. In addition to the various activities that would bring the students “closer to nature,” the heart of the trip was the experience of living, traveling, and experiencing Jewish time together.
Laila described the most important element of the program: “We experienced and took upon ourselves new boundaries, some of which made some of us uncomfortable, in order to find new freedoms within those boundaries. In some cases nature imposed boundaries on us, such as when we were hemmed in on a hiking trail by ice and snow. In other cases, we determined our own boundaries, such as when we deliberated about how to eat, pray, and celebrate Shabbat together. As we explored how to build Jewish community out of diversity, the group discussed and agreed upon collective expectations around kosher food and Shabbat practices.”
“Perhaps, the most challenging new boundary for the group was the expectation that no one bring a cell phone, computer, IPod, or screen of any kind. As limiting as it felt at first not to have our devices, many of us found that not being able to check emails, text messages, or Facebook deepened our human experience of each other. We actually talked to each other. We cooked complex meals, mindful of people’s different needs. We taught each other card games, and we even built an eruv (which some of us learned about for the first time—it is a Jewish construct that permits carrying on Shabbat) out of fishing line, string, and yarn. It turned out that we didn’t need the eruv because it rained, and we couldn’t go outside on Shabbat, but we were satisfied that we had built it anyway. It added to the fullness of Shabbat. We made rules about Shabbat morning prayers that both maximized people’s opportunities to fulfill their personal Jewish commitments and stimulated honest questions and discussion among the students about their differences.”
“We were living out our pluralism, and the boundaries we created actually opened us to meaningful conversations about things that matter to us. In the quiet of nature, away from our busy world, we found entire worlds that we so often miss or forget when so much of our attention goes to our technology. In this case, it was limiting ourselves that liberated us to see the beauty and diversity of the people and the world around us.”
While our ancestors’ journey out of Egypt was an exodus from physical bondage to freedom and self-autonomy, our tradition understands Egypt to represent a psychological place as well. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzraim (מצרים), can also be read Metzarim, which means “straits” or narrow places. The Jewish mystical tradition understands our people’s historical exodus from Egypt as a metaphor for each of our own, personal efforts to liberate ourselves from that which confines us—intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually.
Paradoxically, especially in our fast paced world of instantaneous communication and access, it is our very boundlessness that can inhibit, dare I say, enslave us. Sometimes, when we accept new boundaries upon ourselves, when we limit our choices or our unlimited access, then we can truly become free to experience the world, each other, and ourselves.
Are there ways that creating new boundaries or limitations for yourself might give you a deeper sense of freedom in your life?
Rabbi Marc Baker