What Is ‘Freedom’ in the Journey of Healing?

Pesach is about a path to freedom for the Jewish people, but this Pesach I find myself considering the concept of freedom in the context of the journey to healing.

I am a psychotherapist by profession and a person traversing the path of my own healing. I have found myself so moved and inspired by my fellow travelers — my clients — who commit themselves to seek freedom through the process of therapy. I have the privilege of witnessing and assisting others in an often painful process of recalling traumatic pasts, confronting present woes, and reflecting on their sense of self. This process can be very difficult and is done all in the name of healing. This engagement with a difficult and often deeply painful process is the path towards true freedom.

“Free” is often misconstrued as some absolute state, something that you are or are not. However, freedom cannot be understood as such an absolute. It is an ongoing, changing, unfolding path. Freedom, in this context, can be best understood as one’s footing in, commitment to, and unification with this path. It is both the intention and commitment or kavanah, literally, aim or direction, to the path as well as the ongoing awareness of being committed to that path of freedom.

There is freedom in insight into how our childhood experiences influence habitual and unconscious choices we may make. Now that we have become aware of this fact, we suddenly have choices in how we react to others and how we confront situations that before we would have reacted to in that unconscious, habitual way.

There is also freedom in knowing that there are parts of ourselves we have yet to uncover, nuances we have yet to explore. Yet we do not fear this unexplored territory. We are committed to this process of consciousness and we know that whatever becomes revealed to us through this process will make us more complete, more whole, and yes, more free.

Think of the verse recited in the Friday night davening:

“Tov l’hodot laShem. Ul’zamer l’shimcha elyon; lehaggid baboker chasdecha, va’emunatcha baleilot — It is good to give thanks to G-d. And to sing His name on high; to tell in the morning of His kindness and in the evening of His faithfulness.”

Clearly we sing G-d’s praises in the light, but also in the dark? Yes. In the light we speak of G-d’s chessed — His kindness, and in the dark we speak of emunah — of faith. In the therapeutic process, we relish the “Aha” or breakthrough moments, but what about times of confusion, darkness, and flat-out pain and suffering. Do we embrace those moments as equally important and significant?

Most often we do not, but maybe we should. After all, it is through those times, by withstanding the anxiety, shame, or any other uncomfortable feelings, that we are able to take a step further away from the state of stagnant unconscious action and towards freedom. Let us be equally grateful for the darkness and the light for they go hand in hand. Without one, the other cannot exist. That is what we are seeking, to be whole and integrated people — to be free.

Freedom is inclusive by nature, not restrictive. It makes room for everything, the good, and the seemingly bad and ugly. It allows us to see things in context, through a wide lens. Think of the word chofesh — vacation, a word we often associate with being free. When one looks at the actual meaning of the word, one sees that it has the same shoresh, the same root, as chippus or search/quest.

What a thought: that there is actual freedom in the quest. Also think of the word merchav — expanse. The same letters appear in the word chibur, meaning connection. In width and expansion we see the quality of inclusiveness and connection as well as the idea of the relationship between things. We no longer see things, such as freedom and slavery, as entirely separate entities but as concepts and constructs that exist in relationship to one another.

We speak about Passover as the journey from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to Israel. Many of us focus so critically on the state of slavery and freedom without thinking about the journey as a quality of freedom itself. Without the concept of slavery, there would be no concept of freedom. Another way to think about this is that without the “avodah” or work, which has the same shoresh as “avdut” or slavery, there would be no way of going about the quest. The quest includes the work and the work includes the quest.

Also note the word Egypt in Hebrew Mitzrayim literally means narrowness. It also translates as suffering. Narrowness and suffering seem to be interchangeable concepts and that connection resonates with experiences as a psychotherapist.

A person’s suffering so often has to do not just with the event that was the catalyst for the suffering, but by applying the same narrow lens that the person has developed in early childhood — most often as a survival mechanism. If we continue to live life in a survival state and do not develop a wider lens, then we continue to have limited choices, we continue to suffer, and we cannot be free. If, on the other hand, we choose to leave Egypt, then we choose to leave what was known to us, even if it felt familiar and comfortable (as slavery felt to the Jews in Egypt). We choose to enter into the unknown, the quest, and finally achieve a relationship with this abstract concept of freedom.

If we can expand our understanding of freedom, not as a static concept, but as an ongoing, unfolding path that includes our unconscious or enslaved parts, wouldn’t we be less critical of that which has yet to unfold on this path towards freedom? If we are able to do this, to be less critical and more inclusive of our hidden or perceived as less desirable parts, then we can make room for them to come to light. For when we remain critical or continue to split ourselves into the enslaved and the free, the good and the bad, then we continue to exist as fragmented and not whole beings. We must begin to see things as part of a whole and in relationship with one another. If we apply this and begin to see the path itself as freedom, then we give ourselves permission to be on the path more fully, with more awareness.

Each moment is an opportunity to be conscious, to be in relationship with what is, to ask questions and seek, and ultimately to make real choices. Real choices are based on increased consciousness and awareness. Real choices mean I am choosing to do this or say this not based on what I knew yesterday but based on what I discovered today and see in a different light right here in this moment. This is freedom. It changes every day, in each moment, as we have the capacity to become not fully but more aware than we were the previous day or the previous moment.

If we apply our definition of chofesh as quest or search, then we come up with a new, deeper understanding of the concept of bechirah chafshit — free choice: choosing the path towards consciousness and the exercise of real choices. It is important to recall that the quest includes the state of questioning that often appears as darkness, but is a necessary part of the ultimate path to the light at the end of the tunnel.

This Pesach, try to commit yourself to consciousness. Be kind to yourself when you are in the darkness. Trust that you are and will continue to be guided on your path. Know that there is always more growth to be had and more insight to be gained. When you are committed to this path toward freedom, light and dark go hand in hand. Don’t be afraid. Choose freedom.