Freedom to be our best

Visiting a cellblock in a Northern Israel prison as part of our law enforcement seminar last week offered a rare opportunity to converse with inmates. I asked two of the representative leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, “How is your faith? How has your prayer-life been affected by your incarceration?” At first, they did’t understand my questions. “Of course, we’re devout Muslims” they replied. Upon further reflection they added, “We see from your yarmulke that you are religious. Our faith remains strong. Thank you for asking. Your questions are not the kind of questions we ever get asked.”

I’ve thought a lot about that exchange. Are such questions rare because, as convicted criminals, they lack freedom? Perhaps. Yet being part of rigid, fundamentalist faith organizations, I got the distinct sense that freedom of thought was as rare for them as the freedom to roam. Indeed, freedom of belief is something many of us take for granted. 

The capacity to recover, to renew, to return, is a strong indicator of free will. In reflecting on the power of repentance, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in his commentary on this week’s portion, “Teshuva is the ultimate assertion of freedom.” 

There is a curious omission from Jacob’s final instructions to his children in this week’s portion. Jacob’s blessings are blunt. He rebukes Reuven. He condemns Simeon and Levi’s violent vengeance. Yet curiously, Jacob makes no mention of the fact that Joseph’s brothers were responsible for his original disappearance. Is it conceivable that Jacob would never have learned about the brothers’ mistreatment of Joseph? How else would he explain Joseph’s harsh treatment of his brothers? Why did Joseph place Simeon in detention and threaten Benjamin’s freedom? It would be hard to claim that the father never came to know of the brother’s culpability. So why did Jacob omit any mention of it in his closing words to them? 

Because they had repented. Their remorse, confession, and behavioral improvement (full teshuva) is more than sufficient. Their father need not dredge up a painful reminder of past misdeed for which they have done teshuva. Thus their sincere recovery is honored by Jacob’s omission of their transgression. 

We conclude the Book of Genesis free. The repentance and forgiveness of the book’s final story makes this freedom vivid. This is in stark contrast to the slavery which will be so prevalent next week when we begin the Book of Exodus. 

We know we’re alive, when we are breathing. We know we’re free, when we are choosing. And we know we’re doing our best, when we’re recovering. May we exert our free will to think, believe, and act in ways that bring us to our best.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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