We all have choices and we often struggle with them. We know what choices will make us happy and yet, for some mysterious reason we hesitate to make them. Why do we do that to ourselves? I found the answer in a very surprising place.
In her wonderful book My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen I found my answer. In the book Rachel reminisces about her childhood with her Grandfather. Grandfather was a Orthodox Jewish Rabbi who had been driven from Russia in the Pogroms of the early part of the last century. Rachel’s parents had become Socialistic Atheists so Grandfather took every opportunity to teach Rachel about God. On one occasion he and Rachel attended a Seder at Passover. Too young to understand fully what the ritual meal was all about Grandfather sat her down and told her the story of the Exodus. He told her of the plight of the children of Israel. He told her of Moses seeking their deliverance from Pharaoh. He told her of the plagues and of Pharaoh’s hardened heart which was finally softened by the plague that took the lives of the first born children of the Egyptian’s. Here is the rest of the story in Rachel’s own words:
“What happens next?”...”Well, Moses brings the news of their freedom to the rest.” He told me. “Are the very happy, Grandpa?”
“No Neshume-le (Grandpa’s term of endearment), they are not. They told Moses that they did not want to go. They asked many questions. Where are we going? Who will feed us? Where will we sleep? Moses was deeply surprised. He could not answer any of these questions and he did not know what to do…
I was surprised…”But they were suffering, Grandpa. Why didn’t they want to go?” My grandfather looked sad. “They knew how to suffer,” he told me. “They had done it for a long time and they were used to it. They did not know how to be free…”
I was shocked. “But what about the Promised Land, Grandpa? Wasn’t it true?”
“Yes it was true, Neshume-le, but the choice people have to make is never between slavery and freedom. We will always have to choose between slavery and the unknown...”
I sat for a while thinking of this story, my mind full of pictures. One of them was an image of a long ragged line of people, moving out from the land where they had lived for generations into the darkness and emptiness of the desert, with all their bundles of belongings, their dogs and their cats and their crying children. And at the head of this procession of complaining, worrying, and doubting people is God Himself, in the form of a Pillar of Fire.
“Why does God come Himself, Grandpa?”
“Ah Neshume-le, many people have puzzled over this question and have thought many different things. What I think is that the struggle toward freedom is too important for God to leave to others. And this is so because only the people who become free can serve God’s holy purposes and restore the world. Only those who are not enslaved by something else can follow the goodness in them.”
I was thunderstruck by the truth of the dear Rabbi’s observation. I was indeed afraid of the unknown. Aren’t we all? We think we’d like to try freedom, but our hearts and minds are filled with unanswered questions. Will my friends reject me? Will I be happy? How will I fill my time? How will I face by problems? How will I deal with disappointment? Where can I turn for help? Who will feed me? The list is as infinite as our problems; a list that is inspired by Satan.
We don’t know what to expect of freedom. It has been to long since we knew about it. I remember reading the biography of Viktor Belenko who defected from the USSR during the cold war. At first he couldn’t believe the results of freedom weren’t just propaganda. When he finally accepted that he had a very hard time making decisions. He was completely unprepared to choose among clothes on a rack, or various cuts of meat, or what to do with his life. The shock of freedom eventually wore off as he became more accustomed to his new life. I can’t imagine how fearful and difficult it must have been for Belenko to make the decision to flee his bondage. In many cases life in addiction and other oppressive circumstances must get just that miserable before we are willing to take such an enormous leap.
We do this to others as well. I have an acquaintance who was cohabitating with a friend. She became sober and free of her addiction. He had not. Someone asked her why she hadn’t encouraged his recovery. Eventually, she had to admit that she hadn’t out of fear. “If he is sober what will he be like?” “Will he still need me? Love me?” She had stepped into part of her unknown, but remained afraid of the other.
We all resist change and fear is the reason. I conclude this chapter with a final quote from Rachel Naomi Remen:
The story my grandfather told me did not happen thousands of years in the past. It is happening now. It is the story of every…person I have ever known. It is my own story
The slavery that keeps us from following our goodness is an inner slavery. We are trapped by ideas of worthlessness and lack of self-esteem, by desire or greed or ignorance. Enslaved by notions of victimhood or entitlement. It is a story about the fear of change, about clinging to places and behaviors that are small and hurtful because letting go of them will mean facing something unknown. I heard again my grandfather’s words: “The choice is never between slavery and freedom; we must always choose between slavery and the unknown.”
Freedom is as frightening now as it was thousands of years ago. It will always require a willingness to sacrifice what is most familiar for what is most true. To be free we may need to act from integrity, on trust, sometimes for a long time. Few of us will reach our promised land in a day. But perhaps the most important part of the story is that God does not delegate this task. Whenever anyone moves toward freedom, God Himself is there.