Creative. Imaginative. Innovative. Disruptive. These are words of the highest praise in our success-driven, entrepreneurial culture. We live in a place and a time with unprecedented flowering of technical innovation. Startup founders in their garage workshops use their skills and imagination to provide people with ever more access, freedom and choice, thereby making the world a better place.
Yet it is not always so simple.
Sometimes freedom is frightening and the promise of liberation is unimaginable. This is the reality that our ancestors faced in ancient Egypt, as described in this week’s Torah portion. The children of Israel were forced into hard labor to Pharaoh. When Moses brought the news that God promised freedom (Exodus 6.9), they could not hear because their spirits were constrained and they were completely buried by hard work.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban), who lived in Catalonia in the 13th century CE before making aliyah to Israel, comments on this verse. He writes that it is not on account of a lack of faith in God or trust in Moses that the Jewish people did not hear. Rather, it was because they simply did not have the ability to stop and listen.
The demands of the present overwhelmed any desire to even hear about a better future. So the Jewish people continued to work, even though they knew a better future was possible.
This attitude is similar to that of startup founders: people who lean in to their jobs, work endless hours and make huge personal sacrifices, all to satisfy their drive to succeed. They might believe that it is important to have a life — but not now. Their only god for today is success, or the next round of venture capital funding, and how to keep that star engineer from being hired away.
Are these workaholic entrepreneurs truly free? Or have they fallen into the same trap as our ancestors, working so hard that they cannot imagine stopping and searching for true freedom?
The ideal of individual autonomy is central to this question. Should all people be able to choose for themselves how much, how hard and for whom they work? Or should there be limits, controls and protections?
This debate arises in the United States over minimum-wage laws, anti-discrimination laws and laws on workplace safety. Of course, the Torah has many things to say about when, how and for whom we should work.
In fact, one of the central themes of Torah law concerns when Jewish people cannot work. For example, every Friday from sundown until nightfall on Saturday is time that no human taskmaster can demand our labor. The mitzvah of Shabbat is central to the Torah, but it is perhaps one of the most difficult for contemporary Jews to uphold. How can we be truly free, autonomous individuals if we cannot even choose to go into the office and finish up some work on a Saturday morning?
An answer to this question comes from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), a brilliant Talmudic scholar who adopted the language of neo-Kantian philosophy to explain how accepting the authority of Torah is actually the highest form of freedom.
Soloveitchik argued that surrendering to the demands of Torah and committing to do the mitzvot frees you from the demands of your animal impulses and your ego. Accepting the truth of human heteronomy — the reality that we truly do not always choose our own goals, commitments and destiny — gives you the ability to say no to the contemporary taskmasters who demand your attention, your labor and your love.
This rejection of individual autonomy is a rebellion against the narcissism of our contemporary American culture that places individual pleasure, fulfillment and professional success above all other values, including serving God.
So when Friday night rolls around, and you have some work emails to finish, or you realize you need to make an urgent trip to Costco, or you have to figure out who is driving the kids to their soccer games tomorrow morning — think about our ancestors who could not even hear God’s offer of freedom. And realize that saying no, unplugging and reconnecting with our friends and families is far more difficult work than building Pharaoh’s cities.