The First Commandment: Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone
Ah, comfort zones. How we need our comfort zones.
How we are perturbed when our comfort zones are disturbed.
Try to get somebody out of his or her comfort
zone. Do you think that you can be remotely successful?
Abrahams story in this weeks Torah
portion gives us much to think about comfort zones, freedom,
conformity, subjectivity, religious dogma and more such trivial
I just finished reading an interesting new book
by Stephanie Levine, Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers (NYU
Press, 2003): An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls. It
is essentially a study of Lubavitch teenage girls in Crown
Heights, with the presenting question: What happens to a girls
individuality and independent voice growing up in an ultra-orthodox
Jewish community characterized by its rigid regulations?
The common stereotype is that any personal voice
is squelched in an inflexible religious society. It was with
this attitude that author Levine approached her subject as
she began the research for her book. You may be surprised
at her conclusions after she spent over a year as a participant
observer living in Crown Heights, hanging out with and
interviewing these girls. She basically concludes that the
exact opposite is true: The girls in this community were freer,
more self-actualized, more expressive and more in touch with
the voice of their souls than their peers in the secular world.
By no means does the book portray a perfectly
rosy picture. Yet, I found it fascinating that the author
was able to perceive and appreciate the free spiritedness
of the girls (a rare feat today indeed, with all the negative
perception usually associated with anything orthodox). Yet,
even more interesting, is her analysis for the reasons behind
this apparent paradox.
Jonathan Mahler, author of the New York Times
magazine article, Waiting for the Messiah of Eastern Parkway
(NYT Magazine, Sept. 21 2003), would do well reading this
book. Mahlers linear and surprisingly simplistic piece
misses the entire complexity and spiritually diverse nature
that Levine captures in her book. (If you would like to receive
my detailed critique of Mahlers NYT article, please
e-mail email@example.com and
Ill have my office send it to you).
Heres a conundrum, if I may: If someone
chooses, without external pressure, to follow a path that
has already been tread, is this person a conformist?
What about someone who subjugates himself to
the peer pressure of a free-spirited society is he
a conformist or not?
May I submit that despite the popular notion
regarding religious obedience, conformity has nothing to do
with the choices we make; it is all about the reasons that
compel us to make these choices. In other words, it is not
about the activity we have chosen to be involved in (the cheftza
in Talmudic jargon) but about the person (the gavra).
It is like freedom. What is freedom? Many people
would say that freedom means doing whatever you like. But
that is a very simplistic definition. There are quite a few
people who are indulging in whatever they wish and dont
necessarily feel free. There are others, who dont do
whatever it is that pleases them, and they feel entirely free.
Freedom is not about what you are doing,
but why you are doing it. Freedom means that whatever
it is that you do is not imposed upon you from without but
is your choice from within. Running around all your life experimenting
every which way, does not necessarily mean that you are free.
You may be running out of fear, even panic, terrified of not
being stuck in one (dangerous) place for too long.
Who was it that sang freedom is another word for nothing
left to lose and then tragically overdosed?
On the other hand, you may choose to sit and
meditate in one corner for an entire day, and be completely
free because you made this choice without any external
or internal imposition.
Now, returning to the conundrum. Choosing a
certain path in itself does not determine whether the person
making the choice is free. Because freedom is not about the
path you choose, but why you choose it. If the path
you choose is not due to imposition then it becomes your
path. Similarly, as it would be absurd to say that a musician
who plays by the book of musical notes is conforming
to an existing structure. Indeed, a musician who, in the name
of non-conformity, would refuse to use the musical notes that
those before him have used, would be considered insane.
And this, inevitably, will also lead to an even
more important point. The free person will not suffice with
just walking on the same path that others have trod before
him, but he will add his particular gait, his unique contribution.
Not unlike a true musician who will play the same notes, even
the same piece of music (composition), with his/her unique
Ok, I know that some of you may argue that every
choice we make is ultimately a result of many factors that
have subjectively shaped our lives. Even free will itself
can be debated. As one cynic writes: We must believe in free
will; we have no choice.
Nevertheless, a very strong distinction exists
between behavior driven by imposition and one that comes from
an inner struggle that leads to an individual choice and commitment
to follow a certain path. A conformist is someone who behaves
a certain way because that is the way others behave. Often
its someone who doesnt want to rock the
boat and likes the comfort zone of the conventional
road (the road more traveled). Sometimes it may come
out of pressure, fear of being different, acceptance and the
like. A free person is not driven by fear, peer (or other
such) pressure, but by the sincere search for truth. Epitomized
by Abraham, as Maimonides defines him: committed to
truth because it is true.
This is what Lech Lecho is all about. Abraham
is told to leave his past behind to get out of his
comfort zone all the subjective influences of his land,
place of birth and parents home.
Free yourself from the pressures and influences of your own
subjective self-love, of your society and of your parents
and you will begin to find yourself, your true self.
Take Abraham, the first and ultimate revolutionary.
He grew up in a privileged home and society, and yet chose
to reject it all in search of truth. Abraham is even called
Ivri, from the expression maiver hanahar,
the other side of the river, because Abraham defied the entire
world in which he lived. While everyone stood on one side
of the river, Abraham crossed over and stood on the other
Of course you can chalk up his rebellion to
some genetic drive within, and perhaps the need to make his
mark on the universe. But the indisputable, underlying point
is this: Abraham did not make his choices due to outside forces
familial or social imposing themselves on him.
Abraham independently chose to begin a new journey, never
before embarked upon, and the world has never been the same
Recognizing Abrahams non-conformity was
relatively easy. He simply was not the product of any community
not even of rebels. He created his own community. Today,
however, it is not as easy to discern a true independent voice
amidst all the existing cultures. If someone, for instance,
were to choose to follow Abrahams path, join his community
and live by Abrahams standards, the argument can be
made that this person is conforming to a time-treaded path.
But, in truth conformity is not as much about
the choices you make as it is about what drives you to make
those choices. Abraham gives us each the power to be non-conformists
to play the same musical notes that have been played
before, but in completely new ways.
I once shared a billing with the author Chaim
Potok. In his Friday night lecture he shared his life story.
Growing up in a traditional Jewish home, his parents expected
him to become a Talmud teacher. Instead, to their chagrin,
he became a writer. During his tenure in Korea he began to
question his faith. Potoks personal struggles became
the theme of his books, beginning with The Chosen. In the
early 70s, Potok continued, he was invited to go see
the Lubavitcher Rebbe, but he refused. I didnt
want to lose my objectivity, Potok explained. Had
I met with the Rebbe in a personal, face to face encounter,
I was afraid that his formidable presence would have slanted
my views. Instead, he compromised and came to one of
the Rebbes public Farbrengens.
Sitting in the audience, I was taken by Potoks
comments. As Potok took questions following his talk, I stood
up and asked him: Dr. Potok, if you were invited by
G-d to Mt. Sinai, would you refuse the invitation in fear
that you may lose your objectivity?
Potok and his wife, for that matter, were, understandably,
quite offended by my question. After they blurted some words
I couldnt understand, Potok said, that had the Rebbe
commanded him to come see him, he would have gone. Clearly,
the Rebbe did not want to impose himself upon me, Potok
speculated. Lame answer, I thought, but left it
at that. (For the record, I later apologized to Potok in case
I had said something inappropriate).
The next day, Shabbat day, was my turn to lecture.
I decided to address the issue of objectivity that Potok had
initiated the night before. In brief here is what I said.
Dr. Potok, you were afraid to meet the
Rebbe in fear that you may lose your objectivity. I must admit,
that I did not have this fear, and I did meet the Rebbe and
perhaps did lose my objectivity. I, however, must have a much
stronger yetzer hora than Dr. Potoks. Because
even after meeting the Rebbe I still retained my free will
and G-d knows how I have not been free of iniquity. So perhaps
I didnt lose my objectivity after all. I therefore commend
Dr. Potok for feeling that had he met the Rebbe he would have
lost his freedom and objectivity, and perhaps never transgressed
But I will say this: Is Dr. Potok more
objective than I am because he did not allow himself to be
open to certain strong influences? Isnt that just another
form of prejudice? By not choosing to read certain books or
listen to music in fear that they may affect or influence
us do we become less or more objective? We all have our subjective
experiences and reasons for making the choices we make, and
everything in life can and does influence us.
Objectivity is not determined by whom
you meet and what you experience, it is not about what influences
have affected you or which places you have traveled to. It
is about what you do with those influences. How you
allow them to inform and educate you. How you use them to
transcend your subjective nature and generate objective energy.
Not every revolutionary is a free spirit and
not everyone living by defined rules is a conformist. Of course
there are conformists in the religious world and there are
free spirits in the secular world. But the converse is equally
Indeed, Abraham challenges us all to ask the
question: Wouldnt it make sense to say, that you are
at your freest and can best express your truest self when
you align yourself with the Divine inner parameters (what
some may call rules) of existence?
Case in point: Exercising each day takes effort
and discipline to follow certain rigid guidelines. Yet, by
doing so we align our bodies to its natural rhythms and therefore
allow the body to work at its best. To perfect his art an
artist requires hours of training and discipline, and must
follow a defined musical structure. Yet it is precisely this
rigid discipline that allows him/her to perform with the highest
standard of excellence.
So too in our personal, psycho/spiritual lives:
True freedom is attained by discovering your inner self and
allowing its rhythms to express themselves, without imposition
from any force outside of your own true essence.
To achieve this self-discovery and freedom,
the first and foremost thing we must do is Lech Lecho: Get
out of your comfort zones!
Comfort zones may be more comfortable. But they
are never more growthful. Yes, there is a time for nurturing,
for being in a place, a home, where we can feel comfortable
to explore, to just be. But the real challenge and
true growth begins when we leave our comfort zones,
when we go out and need to initiate and create on our own.
Think back in your own life: When did you accomplish
most? While you were still at home, provided for by your parents,
or when you went away from home for the first time?
The first commandment to Abraham rings throughout
history, its voice speaking to each one of us: You want to
find your true self, you want to reach your greatest potential,
to be the best you can be first you must leave your
comfort zones, your biased attitudes, your previous contexts,
your old patterns. Open yourself up to a new perspective,
travel on new roads, lift your eyes and see new vistas.
Wherever you are in life, whether you have no
absolute guidelines that direct your life, or whether you
live by fixed laws that regulate every aspect of your day,
each of us has the obligation of Lech Lecho: To get out of
our comfortable habits, to cease conforming to the past.
Lech Lecho is not just about leaving a negative
past or a bad habit; the trap of conformity includes conforming
to old standards, even healthy ones! Even someone who follows
every iota of Torah and mitzvot is warned not to fall into
the trap of mechanical behavior, and stale mitzvot by rote.
Bechol yom yihiyu biaynehcho kachdosim,
every day you must see and experience a mitzvah anew, with
fresh vitality. Every relationship, especially one with G-d,
must be dynamic and alive. The Talmud tells us, even if one
reviews his studies 100 times out of habit, he is considered
as if he did not serve G-d because that is his conventional
routine. When he reviews his studies 101 times, he becomes
a true Divine servant (oved elokim); the one additional
time demonstrates that he has grown beyond his own previous
The call of Lech Lecho leave your past
resonates perhaps today more than ever. How often do
we feel stuck in our lives? With the dizzying pace of modern
life, accelerated technology continuously raising our standard
of living, our comfort zones continue to widen, bringing with
it a profound complacency.
If you want to change your life and who
does not? Lech Lecho is the answer. You must shake
up your life. Ok, shake up may sound too harsh. Lets
call it shift. You want change, you want growth,
you want movement, you want freedom you must shift
your life into new arenas.
So in this week of Lecho Lecho, let us shake ourselves up,
shake each other up, shake the world out of its reverie.
During this week we have special power to stop
being conformists and become revolutionaries.
I just received the following e-mail:
At 8:13 PM (New York Time) on November
8, 2003 this coming Shabbat eve, when we read Lech
Lecho a geometrically perfect six sided (Star of David)
configuration will appear in the sky, linking and balancing
the energies of six astrological bodies; the Sun, Jupiter,
Mars, Saturn, Chiron and the Moon. In addition, there will
be an eclipse of the full moon at this time. The interaction
of this significant planetary alignment at the moment of the
eclipse combines to produce a powerful alchemical transformation
offering the opportunity for both personal and planetary shifts
in consciousness. The name that has been given to this particular
energetic window of time is the Harmonic Concordance. It goes
from November 5th through the 11th with the peak at 8:13 PM
on November 8th!
This Grand Sextile astrological configuration, accompanying
a total lunar eclipse, has never before occurred in recorded
history. This is an immensely powerful vibrational activation
that many see as a major interdimensional gateway fulfilling
ancient prophecies and ushering in a new activation of energy
upon the Earth.
This year the energy of Lech Lecho has a unique
power to help us make our move and align ourselves to our
Use it well.