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Lech Lecha: Are You a Conformist?

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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?

Abraham’s story in this week’s Torah portion gives us much to think about comfort zones, freedom, conformity, subjectivity, religious dogma and more such “trivial” issues.

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 girl’s 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. Mahler’s 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 Mahler’s NYT article, please e-mail wisdomreb@meaningfullife.com and I’ll have my office send it to you).

Here’s 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?

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?

The answer obviously lies in understanding the meaning of conformity and freedom.

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 don’t necessarily feel free. There are others, who don’t 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 voice.

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 it’s someone who doesn’t 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.”

A conformist is someone who behaves a certain way because that is the way others behave.

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 “m’aiver ha’nahar,” 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 side.

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 since.

Recognizing Abraham’s 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 Abraham’s path, join his community and live by Abraham’s 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. Potok’s personal struggles became the theme of his books, beginning with The Chosen. In the early 70’s, Potok continued, he was invited to go see the Lubavitcher Rebbe, but he refused. “I didn’t 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 Rebbe’s public Farbrengens.

Sitting in the audience, I was taken by Potok’s 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 couldn’t 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. Potok’s. 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 didn’t 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 again.

“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? Isn’t 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 true.

Indeed, Abraham challenges us all to ask the question: Wouldn’t 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?

Not every revolutionary is a free spirit and not everyone living by defined rules is a conformist.

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 yi’hiyu bi’aynehcho ka’chdosim,” 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 comfort zone.

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. Let’s 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.

Afternote:

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 higher calling.

Use it well.

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