We live in paradox. We are more connected to each other than ever, and feel ever more isolated. We embrace technology to get more free time and yet we are working harder than ever. There are more books written today and less readers to read them. For some, we have unlimited choices in what to eat and what to watch on TV and yet we seem never to be satisfied with our choice.
On a personal level, when asked what freedom really means to the average person, they usually respond that it’s economic freedom (free due to an abundance of money) or temporal freedom (free to have an abundance of time). Inside our hearts exist this need for betterment, a yearning to be free, and yet when we are given exactly those things, either resources or time, we feel burdened by freedom. There are just too many items on the menu, too many shows to watch, and still not enough hours in the day to work, play, and rest. We are running to be free, but don’t know what to do with our freedom.
Our generation lives in paradox. The question is not can we live without paradox, but in which paradox do we choose to live?
I think this is best illustrated by one of my favorite parables from the Talmud: Rabbi Yehoshua son of Chananiah said, “Once a young child got the better of me. I was traveling, and I met with a child at a crossroads. I asked him, ‘which way to the city?’ and he answered: ‘This way is short and long, and this way is long and short.’ I said, “I’ll take the ‘short-long’ way. He directed me off the road and down a path and I soon reached the walls of the city but found my approach obstructed by thorns and brambles. I could hear the bustle of the marketplace and smell the warm bread from the bakeries, but I could not enter. So I retraced my steps and found the child again and said, ‘My dear boy, did you not tell me that this is the short way?’ The child answered, ‘Did I not tell you that it is also long?'” (Talmud, Eruvin 53b)
The story speaks to living in two paradoxes. The first plays into our desire to arrive quickly, to take the short path and find the most meaningful life possible — now. The urgency of this path, though, almost always leads us into danger and ultimately prevents us from getting to our destination. The other paradox, is to take the longer path — the one that requires perseverance, patience and grit. There might be more steps in this path, but you can get to where you want to go. The short-long road of life will always leave you disappointed and dissatisfied. The long-short road can change who you are for the better. It is not a matter of living in paradox, it’s realizing which paradox you want to live in that matters.
The Torah points to this paradoxical living in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach. Finally, after hundreds of years of slavery and miraculous signs and wonders, we find the Israelites sent free from Egypt towards the Promised Land. Yet at the very moment of freedom the Torah tells us, “God did not lead them by the way of the Philistines, although it was nearer, for God feared they would have a change of heart when they faced war would turn back to Egypt. God thus took them by a roundabout path by the way of the wilderness towards the Sea of Reeds.” (Ex. 13:17-8)
At the very opening moments of liberation, God chose not to show the fleeing Israelites the most direct path towards freedom. Even after generations of struggle, God took them on the longer path, one that avoided the implacable fear of violence, so that they could learn the value of their freedom and to accelerate them to the millennia long project of freedom-making that we are all a part of. The rabbis add that if God were to take them on the simpler route each newly freed person would immediately seize upon each other, neglect the study of the Torah and become the very oppression they sought to leave behind. (Mekhilta 13:17:1) In order to change our physical lives, the Torah tries to change our spiritual lives. Sometimes from the inside out and sometimes from the outside in.
Every lasting achievement can take lifetimes to build, especially if that achievement is building a more just and loving world infused with God’s spirit. It is not a matter of paradox or no paradox. It is a matter of which paradox you choose to live in.
The most meaningful goal of the long-short path then is not just to arrive at a place, but to arrive to yourself. The meaning of freedom is not just to have more time and money, that is the short-long path. Instead the path of the Exodus and the way of the Torah is to take the long-short path so that you evolve into the type of person you are dreamed to be, embedded in history, and sewn into a future that you cannot yet see but you know is there. It is not that you are free that matters, but how you use your freedom create the world of God’s dreams.