Freedom for what?

רבי מאיר אומר כל העוסק בתורה לשמה, זוכה לדברים הרבה. ולא עוד אלא שכל העולם כלו כדי הוא לו

Rabbi Meir says: Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things, and moreover the entire world is worthwhile for his sake;

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 6:1)

One of my favorite phrases in Mishnaic language appears in the quote above, attributed to Rabbi Meir: Osek B’Torah Lishmah (to be busy/involved in Torah for its own sake). As someone who loves learning for the simply joy of it, the idea that my own tradition values such study so highly has always been appealing. Many Jewish schools including Gesher have statements in their philosophy or mission about lifelong learning and curiosity that are rooted in the idea that inculcating a love of learning will propel students to always continue acquiring new skills and knowledge. In tension with this idea of learning for its own sake, however, is the very real need to prepare students practically and realistically to compete academically and in the job market. Yes, love of learning is a great attribute for an employee, but it has to be balanced with the ability to apply skills and knowledge productively.

I’ve often felt this tension myself, as I could easily lose myself in learning and exploration of ideas, but at the end of the day I have deadlines and expectations just like any other employed adult. It is this same tension that often creates an unfortunate wall between the fascinating discoveries occurring every day in academia and higher education and their practical application in the rest of society. Without the freedom and inclination to spend endless hours in study and exploration, many fields would stagnate. But transferring that information into meaningful action is also a key outcome of that study.

Recently, we were privileged to hear from Sheryl Shwartz, our keynote speaker at Gesher With A Twist in March. Her goal was to help us all shift conversations in which Israel is criticized by arming us with some incredible data about how the tiny Jewish nation is literally living the mission of being Or Lagoyim (a light to the nations). She offered example after example of the ways in which research and practical applications are brought together to improve the world in some of the most amazing and meaningful ways imaginable. I’m so proud to be part of a people whose legacy is having a powerful impact for freedom and sustainable throughout the entire world.

This Passover, as we tell the story of our redemption from slavery to freedom, I’m thinking hard about how important it is to consider what we do with that freedom. Our story wasn’t just one of escaping hardship and then settling down to farm produce and herd sheep. Our story was a transformation based on the crucible of intense hardship that remains a core motivator for Jews to engage proudly in the creation of just societies wherever we live. The price we willingly pay for our freedom is the covenant with the divine to make our world better. Watching our nation do just that, even in the face of 70 years of constant threat, should make each of us intensely proud.

This Pesach (Passover) and Shabbat, I encourage you to speak with your family about the impact that you want to make to improve the world, and ask your children the same question – what are you going to do with your freedom? It really doesn’t matter what size your impact is — it always has a ripple, so as long as it pushes us in the right direction it is worth you time and energy.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach (happy holiday),