By Sheldon Stoff
Originally printed in the JULY-AUGUST 2005 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Stoff, Sheldon. "Thinking in Freedom." Quest 93.4 (JULY-AUGUST 2005):126-129
Human freedom is inner freedom, given to us by God.
Almost four years ago, Osama bin Ladin and his Al Qaeda network destroyed the World Trade Center. The men who carried out this act were slaves. In fact, bin Laden was a slave, too. Though on the surface he seemed powerful—and still does—bin Laden lives in a state of slavery to the self-centered ego. When tragedy struck, we found ourselves with choices. These choices would determine the extent to which we would shore up our freedom or enslave ourselves.
After we were attacked, we Americans found we could react to the hatred that destroyed the World Trade Center with hatred of our own. Some of us sought vengeance, based on our hatred for inpiduals and for their ideals. This response, like the horrible actions initiated by the terrorists, came out of the self centered ego. Though vengeance can be self-directed, acts of vengeance are not acts of freedom. We cannot act in freedom and hatred at the same time.
We could respond with a desire to protect the civic freedom Al Queda attacked. Many people did express concern about safeguarding our American tradition of doing what we want to do, when we want to do it. However, this response also grew out of ego. It, too, revealed a false sense of freedom. The concept of freedom entails more than physical movement, more than physical action, even more than the absence of mental compulsion. In fact, an understanding of the concept of "freedom" is an understanding of who we are and what we are really all about. That is perhaps why Rabbi Abraham Kook has remarked, "...the greater the freedom, the greater the level of holiness."
In that time of unspeakable sorrow, we also found we could choose to affirm our holiness and act out of real freedom: we could love. Freedom is essentially spiritual activity motivated by love. Even as I write in the midst of war and great uncertainty, we can, by inner effort, rise above revenge. Our thoughts can soar, regardless of these external circumstances, into the pure air of freedom. The many examples of noble thought during and immediately after the Twin Towers' destruction attest to our ability to transcend physical conditions. If we are to think in freedom, we must overcome inner and outer conditions, whether favorable or adverse. We can become our own person! We can act out of our essence! We can act as we really are! We must not turn away from our spirituality in our time of great need. It is our key to both spiritual growth and action.
When are we, as inpiduals, free to be ourselves? We become masters of ourselves when we have achieved a harmony of loving thought and action. If we respond automatically to any action, horrible as it may be, we act without control of our own will power our free will. There is then little of the essence of the inpidual in such response. Such action ignores who we are and what our values are all about. In its undue emphasis on externals it loses sight of our inner quest, our primary need for self conquest, never to act in hatred, but to act out of our core, the spark of God placed within each of us, the spark that equals love that equals conscience.
The finest guides in our quest for the higher self, the only self that suits the inpidual and benefits the world, have always been found in the self forgetting concepts of sacrifice and active service to humanity. Without our willingness to sacrifice any limited self advantage for the whole, which becomes dearer than self, we are doomed to pursue the kinds of self aggrandizement that have always ended in defeat. Our sages, on the other hand, have sought to lead communities of people to the light and power of such ideals as that of rebirth through the giving of ourselves. Today, each of us must discover these ideals anew if we are to progress on the path of decency, maturity, and spirituality.
For each of us to think in freedom is to overcome stereotype and tradition, religion, nationalism, gender and peer pressure. It is for the inpidual to consider how the pure ideal can be imaginatively, efficiently, and lovingly realized in action. It is to overcome our bias of self importance in order to truly know who we are. With the help of our inner spark we can execute justice, fairness, even kindness. We can act in truth. We can act in freedom. We can act in love. On this level of experience, intuition is awakened. The person using only intellect as a guide is alienated from those about him or her. That inpidual becomes simply a spectator to life. When we combine intellect with loving intuition the balance brings about wisdom, freedom, responsibility and creativity— the goals of human achievement.
Ours is the beginning of an age in which external restraints are crumbling. In such a situation we have the rare possibility of making our own decisions. A society of free inpiduals, capable of rising at critical moments above their inner and outer compulsions, achieves loving action as its goal. It is the goal of an enlightened civilization. The inpidual who searches for meaning in life comes to feel the pain and joy of the hour's claim on his or her soul. Such a person begins to chart his or her course, and to shoulder social and spiritual responsibility. We can walk on the thin edge of freedom that rises between the abyss of self immersion on one side and the abyss of self abandonment on the other. We were born with the gift of free will, and in this culture and this age, we can apply it broadly. We can choose to act for good or evil—and we are responsible for our actions!
An aspect of our growth toward freedom lies in the development of independent thought. We ask, Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life on Earth? It may well be that the most relevant challenge the inpidual can face is the time honored one of learning to know who he or she is. We make progress in this encounter as we come to recognize our essence within: a spirit temporarily in a physical body—a spirit choosing to have a human experience
As inpiduals, we can experience ourselves as both commonplace and sacred. Our consciousness can expand until all about us comes alive and we can experience our oneness with all that is. We can experience the reality of the oneness of unity. All of us and all the world are a symbol, and the symbol is to be penetrated: reality is to be known! When loving intuition joins intellect in the complete act of thought; when we realize the wonder, sacredness, and beauty of the earth; when we resonate with the spark within ourselves and in the world—only then are we acting in freedom.
When we surrender to another—even a perceived God, if that God is entirely outside us— we have lost touch with our free will and the reason for incarnating. Because we have not identified with our essence, we give up our identity to another. Surrendering free will is the opposite of freedom. Such a surrender of free will is an insidious challenge to freedom. Remember that free choice is an essential for spiritual growth. Without free choice and the personal responsibility that ensues, we would experience no learning and achieve no growth. There would be only slavery.
It was not appropriate in Nazi Germany to surrender to Hitler's plans; it was not appropriate for the Al Qaeda underlings to allow bin Laden to prosecute his plan; and it is never appropriate for the inpidual to succumb to anyone else's plan if the plan co-opts the inpidual's freedom. The power of the leaders does not absolve inpiduals of responsibility. We are responsible for our deeds even when we voluntarily enter into slavery. Only we can make plans for ourselves, though we may seek the advice of our guides. To fail in this quest is to miss the meaning of our times. Each of us, then, must make an effort to understand our own motives. The conquest of our self-centered ego is the painful, laborious task of our time. It is also the gateway to our upward climb.
Without a spiritual love for the deed there can be no freedom in action. But if we act out of our spiritual core, we embark on a life of love, immersed in spirituality and true freedom. Since the soul is always connected to the Eternal One, thoughts and actions that come out of our essence—out of what we recognize as our soul—also come from the source of our creation, the Eternal One. It is that and only that which can be called freedom of action.
Some time ago I sought help from Rabbi Isaac Luria in understanding the meaning of freedom. I list some of the thoughts that were given to me:
Act without thought of self.
Act only with love for the action
Your essence is the spark of God.
Your essence is love.
Live a life of loving-kindness.
Your actions, derived from your essence of love, are not only free actions, they are also spiritual actions. The two are inseparable.
We may or may not be able to be free outwardly, but we are impregnable if we are inwardly free, if we act from the spark that the Eternal One placed in each of us.
The Eternal one has placed free will and freedom of thought on our shoulders and in our hearts. This is both a wonderful burden and a challenge. We must take up the burden joyfully and the challenge eagerly to show our gratitude for so great a gift. We must strengthen ourselves with study and meditation so that we may not stumble and lose this freedom of ours. We must become wise, developing our own sense of spiritual reality so that we may not be tricked into giving it away. We must be firm in our ultimate goals, for they are the rock on which we stand. We must act as the freeborn children of God by giving freely of our love.
Parts of this essay came from my recently published book: Universal Kabbalah: Dawn of a New Consciousness. Published by BUSCA, Inc. (Buscainc.com)