In one of the most dramatic scenes of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, a former prisoner who has become beloved mayor of his adopted town, is faced with the challenge of throwing away the life he has built for himself to defend an innocent man. Jean Valjean, standing in the courtroom, asks himself: “Who am I? Can I condemn this man to slavery. Pretend I do not feel his agony. This innocent who bears my face. Who goes to judgment in my place. Who am I?”
Standing before the townspeople, he reveals his true identity, saving the innocent man’s life, only to go immediately into hiding. Aware of his freedom, he realizes he must now interpret this difficult situation before him as an opportunity to build up the courage to stand up and do what is true and just.
This is precisely the question that Bnai Yisrael must now face between Passover and Shavuot, between redemption and revelation. We have left slavery in Egypt physically and ontologically, experienced the miracles from the hand of G-d, and we have crossed the sea and seen our enemies drowned before our eyes. We now stand redeemed at the edge of the sea. In this crucial moment of identity formation, how will we use our freedom? We are faced with the question that is perhaps the most challenging question of our lives: how do we choose to interpret our lives?
Are we now and forever the victim of Egypt? Are we forsaken and stranded in the desert, and not entitled to more? Or are we the recipients of great miracles beyond anything we could possibly deserve? Are we now responsible in a new way?
Most who left Egypt could still only interpret the world as slaves. This is why we needed 40 years in the desert, to transition from a generation trapped in a slave mentality unfit to autonomously lead our own nation, unable to interpret our own realities. And thus immediately after achieving our freedom, we complain, feeling entitled to food and water.
Volunteering on different occasions in the former Soviet Union, numerous Jewish individuals shared with me that they would rather return to Communist Russia, where paychecks were consistent. Everyday expectations, for many, trump freedom.
What would we rather live with – freedom or consistent pleasure?
The 20th-century American philosopher Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, proposed the thought experiment of a virtual reality machine—if one could have any experience they choose in this machine (and one would forget that they are even hooked up to the machine), Nozick asked, ”would one choose to be hooked up” to it? He concluded, perhaps idealistically, that no one in their right mind would choose to be hooked up to this machine, since such happiness is no happiness at all. It is through our free direct engagement and interpretation of our reality, rather than through a mediated experience, that we truly live. We choose to live with reality, knowing that the life situations before us are often not objectively good or bad. We must interpret not illusion but a real world, our real lives.
Must we, then, choose between harsh reality and the ideal? There is something in between. We actually have a machine within each of us that we can turn on and off. It is the machine that we use to interpret the world. Reality does not impose meaning upon us. Rather, we choose to make meaning of our own reality. We choose how we interpret it.
If we wish to look at our closest family members, we can interpret our intimate experiences with them over the years to show how they may be selfish and flawed. But we also may choose to make the case for their depth and goodness. We may decide how we actually choose to view other people.
Similarly, if we wish to view our Jewish tradition as chauvinistic, racist, sexist, and outdated, we will find plenty of sources and proofs to make the case. If we wish to see the Jewish tradition as a collection of some of the most beautiful and powerful moral and spiritual wisdom that has spoken to hearts and souls for ages, we will find plenty to make the case. Because I believe and wish the Torah to be just and G-d to be good, I choose to interpret texts with charitable interpretations and life events with a lens of faith and devotion. As Hans-Georg Gadamer, the 20th century philosopher, taught, objective truth does not simply emerge from text. We bring our “prejudices,” assumptions, and judgments to the text. All objective human sensory experience passes through the subjective mind to be understood. Do we actively choose our hermeneutic lens and do we defend our tradition? These choices are up to us.
We choose every day, every moment how to interpret the reality before us. This is what the rabbis are teaching when they say, “ain adam lomeid Torah ella m’makom she’lebo chafetz” (one can only truly learn when the heart is turned on to something). We might say the same about love: One can only truly love another if one actively chooses to love. More important than the realities the world imposes upon us is our response and interpretations of those realities. If we wish to be inspired, we must actually decide that we will open our hearts and allow ourselves to be inspired.
Our inspiration should not arise from allowing others to interpret the world for us. The writers of op-eds and talk show hosts tell us what matters, psychologists tell us what we really feel, friends let us know what we should think, movie critics tell us how to watch movies, parsha emails tell us how we should read the text. We can turn our minds and souls off, since others can think and feel for us. The world seems purely objective, and we just need others to tell us what the real truth is.
Perhaps we do this because on some level, each of us is convinced that we are not smart enough, experienced enough, or competent enough. We feel we must rely upon others to interpret the world for us, as if there actually could be an expert other than ourselves in interpreting our personal realities. When we allow this, or merely react to our life situations without proactively interpreting our life situations, we sacrifice our freedom.
Not everything in life is important, but for those people and things that are important to us, we must actively determine our interpretations. We need to focus on the good in the people and things that we most cherish, even in moments where there is contrary evidence. This is the virtue that the rabbis call “ayin tovah,” the good interpretive lens (Avot 5:22).
This is the biggest question that students on campus are addressing. Now that I have my freedom, how will I choose to interpret the world? Do I wish to view the world as my parents have? Do I choose a Jewish lens? Which books, scholars, and ideologies will inform my interpretation of the universe? But this choice is not just the result of a college-age existential crisis. It is a lifelong endeavor of choosing. Each of us can ask, what is my philosophy of interpretation of the world? What is my life hermeneutic?
Politicians see opportunities in crisis. Entrepreneurs see potential ventures in social needs. Optimists see the good amidst ambivalence. How do we as religious Jews interpret the world? What is the life lens that we cultivate? I would propose that when we encounter ambiguity, the authentic Jewish response is, How do I serve? How do I give? How do I make this situation better?
This is what Hannah Senesh did when she interpreted the risk of the Jews of Hungary being sent to the Nazi death camps as an opportunity to parachute behind enemy lines to attempt their rescue. This is what Rabbi Avi Weiss did on the morning of September 11th when he interpreted the news that others were fleeing from the World Trade Center as an opportunity to take a cab downtown, not uptown. This is what Ruth Messinger does when, as a 71-year-old, she hears about a village addressing poverty somewhere in the world and interprets it as an opportunity to travel there to find out how the Jewish community can help.
Right after Bnai Yisrael achieved their freedom and were rescued from the split sea, the Torah tells us that they were strengthened in their faith and sang a reverential song of worship, but only moments later complained for water and for the food of Egypt. In this first opportunity to interpret our free lives, the response, understandable as it was, was one of slaves feeling entitlement, not of free people looking to give.
Each year at this time, we have the opportunity to make a tikkun (a repair of our first free interpretation). Millions of people every day struggle to make ends meet, to heal a physical or emotional wound, and to overcome despair and sorrow. Miraculously, amidst a difficult world that continues to surprise us and unexpectedly knock us down, the great human spirit perseveres to interpret life situations as opportunities not only to address our infinite personal needs and desires, but also to interpret our life situations as opportunities to serve and to give to others also in need.
Today, and every day, we stand redeemed from Egypt and the split sea amidst new challenges, and must confront this question: “How will I interpret my freedom?”
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.