Taken from the book Lights from Jerusalem:
According to cognitive psychology, all human actions are in response to an ‘inner tape’ that plays nonstop in the human brain. This tape is most often recorded by heredity and environment. It tells us what to do, and like automatons, we obey: “That person just insulted you. Insult him back!” “That driver just cut you off. Get angry.”
This is the Torah’s definition of slavery. This is the voice of Pharaoh; it brooks no disobedience, nor does it even occur to us to disobey. There is no such thing as a bad slave, because a slave has no viable choices. For most of our waking hours, it does not even occur to us to disobey or change our inner tape.
In a world driven by the survival instinct and the pleasure principle, the Torah mandated an alternative way of life driven by holiness and spiritual values. The ethics of the Torah have become so imbued in Western civilisation that we may not realise what a radical alternative they offered to ancient man – and continue to offer to us today …
With the giving of the Torah, a human being was no longer a slave to the imperatives of his/her desires. A second voice – the Divine Voice – mandated a different, sacred course of action. The human being was free to choose. The exercise of choice itself is freedom.
That freedom entails choice is obvious when we observe the elections held in countries ruled by dictators. All the accoutrements of free elections are there, such as voting booths and secret ballots. But if only one candidate is running, the election is clearly not ‘free’. Freedom requires choice.
When Hashem gave the Jewish people the Torah, He gave us 613 choices. Observe Shabbat or not. Love your neighbour or not. Gossip or not. Unlike Pharaoh, Hashem, as you might have noticed, brooks a great deal of disobedience. That’s why a person who violates a Divine commandment is not struck by lightning. Immediate punishment would limit our freedom of choice. The ability to make moral choices is a Divine gift. It’s the only true freedom humans have.
The key phrase here is ‘moral choice.’ … Only in the moral realm do you have free choice. When your inner tape says to give tit for tat, to respond to an insult with an even more lethal barb, you have the power to change the tape. You have the power to ask yourself, ‘Is this who I really want to be?’ The very act of choosing between your knee-jerk response and the Divine imperative to be kind is freedom.
Each of us at every moment is heeding the voice of Pharaoh or the voice of Hashem. The voice of Pharaoh commands us to do what is instinctive, automatic, and reflexive. ‘Doing what comes naturally’ is the ultimate bondage because we exercise no power of choice.
The voice of Hashem, on the other hand, offers an alternative to instinct. For example, by commanding us not to take revenge (Leviticus 19:18), Hashem in effect is saying: ‘Your instinct is to hurt those who hurt you. By commanding you to act otherwise, I’m offering you the ability to choose a different course.’
The exercise of choice is the essence of freedom. Forget the taskmaster’s whip and the massive bricks. Each of us is enslaved every time we act on automatic pilot, every time we react according to our instinctual programming.
To experience liberation … we need only to break the bonds of instinct, to learn to deliberate and decide what we shall do or what we shall say, based on who we want to become – a slave of Pharaoh or a servant of Hashem.