by Jay Litvin
Editor’s note: Each week, the Week In Review brings you a sampling of the Rebbe’s teachings—adaptations of his talks, essays and letters—that propose a way of life instructed by the Torah and illuminated by Chassidic teaching. Perhaps some of you have wondered: What would it be like to actually live this way? What happens when these teachings are accepted as a guide to daily living?
In this column, we bring you a glimpse into one such life. Jay Litvin is a 53-year-old husband, father, writer, filmmaker, public relations consultant and chassid. His articles are based not on any specific talk or essay of the Rebbe, but on his personal experience of the endeavor to incorporate the Rebbe’s vision into his life.
I stood between the train cars, wind blowing in my hair, watching the Mexican countryside flash by. With each passing hour the train wheels carried me further from my obligations, my bills, my job, and the people who knew me. In twelve more hours, my wife and two children and I would get off the train, ride a bus for several hours, and then take a boat to a place where no one knew us. A place where I would receive no phone nor electric bills, because there would be neither electricity nor phones. Nor were there any roads in the small village that would be our home, so there would be no automobile to care for, no insurance fees or gas expense. The palm-thatched palapa in which we would live cost $150 per year. I would live off the land with my hands, my machete, and a crude, Mexican-made fishing device to supply most of our food.
I was free! I had left bills, obligations, the constraints of societal norms, and the expectations of others behind me. My time and my life were my own.
Today, I have seven children. I work 12 to 14 hours a day. I have even less time than money. My obligations to family, work, and community are greater than anything I left behind when I boarded that decrepit train to Mexico. And yet, there is a sense of freedom in these obligations that surpasses the most idyllic, sun-filled days spent fishing in a dugout canoe on the Pacific Ocean.
A hungry person is not free, but enslaved by the need to end the growling in his stomach. In those Mexican days, I was hungry for the connection and fulfillment that I thought I would find in this primitive, natural environment. The freedom and pleasure I discovered were wonderful, but only a diversion from the goal that I had set off to achieve. Late at night, sitting in our palapa, the kids tucked into their hanging bamboo beds, the kerosene lantern casting its glow around the makeshift table, dimly illuminating the palm fronds that surrounded our home, I would feel the same emptiness that had taken me to Mexico in the first place. And though I would not dwell on the thoughts and feelings that crept into consciousness in the silence of the night, I knew that the true purpose of this journey was not being achieved. I was still starving for meaning in life.
My hunger had taken me through many experiences and investigations, much study and exploration. It was a search that had gone from the mountaintops of Oregon to the jungles of Mexico and many places in between. But I didn’t find freedom from this hunger until I reached the gray, workaday city of Milwaukee. Because it was in Milwaukee that I discovered Chabad and Torah-true Judaism.
One cannot be truly free unless one knows who he really is, what he really wants and what he is meant to do. Regardless of how fantastic or romantic, dramatic or adventurous the masks I wore, they were in the end only masks, and not my real face. I am not a machete-carrying Mexican peasant working the land. I am a Jew connected to G-d through Torah and mitzvot. And when I am being who I truly am and fulfilling the purpose for which I was brought into the world, the yokes of worldly obligation are no longer the markers of whether or not I am free. They become the tools with which I exercise my freedom.
I need my car to deliver mishloach manot on Purim. I must earn money to give my children the education they need to become Torah-loving people. The telephone is vital to my work and to the ability to communicate words of Torah or to help a friend. The rent I pay (more dollars per week than what I paid for a year’s use of the palapa in Mexico) provides a home filled with Torah and learning, with mitzvot and good deeds, with warmth and love and nurturing for my children in a community and environment that strengthens, supports and encourages the values upon which I base my life.
The adventure I seek is found in the constant exploration of who I am and who I can be as I stretch further and further in my quest to become the best parent, husband, friend, Jew and chassid I can be.
Today, my soul no longer aches. It is nourished by a connection with the Almighty and a sense of His presence in my daily hours. My hunger is filled, rather than diverted by constantly shifting adventures and pleasures. My life, thank G-d, is filled with purpose, satisfaction and a profound love of my family.
My children are not running barefoot through the sand, but walking sure-footed through life, feet firmly planted in Torah and a way of life that cherishes the finest and highest of G-dly and human qualities.
I don’t fish, have little time for vacations, and carry a tallit bag rather than a machete. I am bound to the yoke of Torah. I am a servant (to the best of my limited abilities) of G-d’s will.
And I have never been more free.