Thursday, March 25, 2010

"I Can't !"

"I can't". How many times have we said those two powerful words? How many times have we heard others say them to us. So much of our life we excuse ourselves from taking on responsibility with "I can't". Yet in our heart of hearts, I suspect, in many of those cases, we know we indeed can if we only but really want to!.

In a few days we will sit down to the seder. We will recite the Hagadah. If you recall, while essentially in keeping with the theme of Pesach, the story we will tell is of the slavery in Egypt and of the Exodus, we begin by remembering a far earlier experience, that of our ancestors being idolaters and Abraham choosing to reject their beliefs in favor of a commitment to Hashem.

The Michtav MaiEliyahu wonders about prefacing the story of Pesach with the earlier story of our father Avraham. He asks why do we need to begin with Avraham's rejection of idolatry. What's in Avraham's decision that needs to be remembered seder night?

He answers with a compelling insight. He notes that at times you and I are faced with a challenge. We know we need to make a certain decision, to change a behavior, or to take on a new direction in our lives. Yet we also know that all the forces lined up against us making that decision, change, or commitment make it feel near impossible to realize. In one regard we have the freedom to choose. Yet in another way we feel so constricted, so much limit ted by our circumstances. We want to choose, yet we feel we can't.

Its to this situation that we open the seder story to the experience of our father Avraham. No one was more pressed to conform to values in which he did not believe than Avraham. The whole world of his day held onto idolatry and with it a corresponding culture. More even than resisting the threat of the fiery furnace of Nimrod, Avraham resisted the daily pressures to surrender his belief in the one G-d with its concomitant values and join in the societal norms of the people with whom he lived. It would have been totally understandable had Avraham decided "I can't" and while holding on to his belief in the one G-d in private, accepted the inevitable in embracing the beliefs of the world of which he was a part in public.

Yet Avraham said "I can" and more "I will". He rose above the tide that threatened to engulf him. He persevered and with that not only remained true to his beliefs, he founded a people and changed a world.

Rav Dessler in his Michtav MaiEliyahu argues that we open the seder reading of Avraham because in his story we find our challenge, the challenge of what it really means to be a ben chorin, a person free. To be free we need to be able, like Avraham, to say "I can" even when it feels overwhelming to do so. Like Avraham we need to know that freedom is not about the ability to choose but about making choices. And real freedom is exercised precisely when all the forces around us make that decision difficult.

In truth, whats more amazing about Avraham's story, even beyond his choice, is that he remained a loving and accepting person. Most persons when they have to fight against the stream tend to become hard edged, tough, unbending as persons, zealots just so they can ride over all the pressures aligned against them and their choice. Avraham remained person devoted to hesed. He invited guests different than himself. He argued to save Sedom, those living a life antithetical to his values. He engaged his world and sought to change it rather than conquer it.

When you and I sit down to our seder to celebrate our G-d given gift of freedom we are reminded of Avraham's story. We are reminded that though all too often we say "No, we can't" in fact "Yes, we can!". And not only can we, but we don't have to become an achzor, a hard edged, constricted person in order to do so. We can say 'I can" and remain loving, tolerant and accepting.

And so as we prepare for our seder lets think about our "I can't"s. Let's consider which of them we might change to "I can" and without surrendering our compassion and resolve to love. More than a symbol of freedom, in changing "I can't" to "I can" we become free.

Lets make this Yom Tov indeed a z'man chairuteinu, the season of our freedom, for us as persons as well as for our people!

Shabbat Shalom

Chag Samayach

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