In recent years I have become incrementally more disciplined about my exercise regimen. Prior to the pandemic, my wife and I were on a fairly fixed schedule of going to the gym three times a week. In the post-COVID period we have not been going as regularly. Nevertheless, we still are trying to stay on track.
My pre-gym rituals are fairly pedestrian. I come home from work, change out of my work clothes and into my gym attire. I reach into my closet to pull out whatever is on top of the pile of workout clothes. Many of the T-shirts I own promote some product or brand that I do not necessarily embrace and have little idea from whence they came. But it’s just a workout T-shirt, so who cares, right?
One of the T-shirts that regularly makes its appearance is one that has a message that says: “I’m just chasing freedom.” I do know where this T-shirt originated. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Sandy and Robert, are close friends of Richard Galanti, the well-respected and longtime chief financial officer of Costco Wholesale Corporation. Sandy and Robert attended the bar mitzvah of Richard’s son, a lavish affair in Seattle’s famous Museum of Pop Culture. The party featured gastronomic delights and world- class entertainment. And then there were the requisite parting gifts or “swag” that were handed out to all the guests of the affair. Somehow, I inherited this T-shirt from my family in Seattle. Yet, I have no idea of the reference in the expression, “I’m just chasing freedom.” But I have been recently reflecting on the many nuances and aspects of freedom that I believe are apropos as we approach the Pesach holiday season.
The Pesach Story
Much ink has been spilled (and will be spilled for years to come) on the Jewish perspective on the meaning of freedom. As a nation, our freedom was a gift from God to His chosen people that released the Jewish people from their long period of suffering as slaves at the hands of the Egyptians. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Hashem granted our nation its freedom for a purpose well beyond taking control of our physical well-being. The Exodus from Egypt was only a step along the way to our acceptance of the Torah and becoming a great nation under God. While our physical freedom was won, our capacity to achieve a loftier spiritual plane through Torah observance was the ultimate purpose.
With Freedom Comes Responsibility
We are truly privileged to live in a country that was “conceived in liberty” and espouses the rights of all mankind. As Jews, this country has been a long sought after safe haven after centuries of travails and pogroms in many other lands across the world. Institutionalized antisemitism and suppression by hateful nations across the globe has been a sad and recurring theme. While there has been an alarming rise in antisemitism in the United States in recent years, I would argue that it is still far from institutionalized and is considered socially unacceptable by the vast majority of Americans.
But there is a significant potential downside to many of the freedoms we enjoy. In every decision we make each day, we have the freedom to veer off the best path. We have the right to eat whatever we want at each meal. But if we decided to gorge ourselves on junk food with little nutritional value, are we using our freedom to enhance our well-being? If we are living from paycheck to paycheck, does it make sense to use our credit cards to splurge on things we cannot afford?
Due to the liberties embedded in our democracy, Jews have had the opportunity to achieve financial success in professional life and to embrace our roots through Torah observance. Unfortunately, freedom has its limits. The vast majority of Jews in America have taken their liberties to jettison their Jewish roots. Clearly, one can take advantage of freedom to pursue questionable goals.
Trivial Pursuits in the Torah
When I think about the expression “chasing freedom,” I am struck by the fact that “chasing” often has negative connotations in the Torah. In relation to the Pesach story, the expression of pursuit is highlighted by Pharaoh’s ultimate inability to correct his ways. Even after the death and destruction that God wreaked upon Egypt, Pharaoh reverted back to his basest inclinations and decided to pursue the Jewish people after he already allowed them to leave Egypt:
“And Hashem stiffened the heart of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and he ‘gave chase’ to the Israelites.” (Shemot 14:8)
What was Pharaoh chasing now? Did he not see the futility of letting his evil, base instincts overtake his better judgment?
What Really Matters
The Gemara in Mesechet Shabbos (31A) discusses a series of questions asked of man on his ultimate day of judgment. The questions include: Did you deal faithfully in business? Did you fix times for learning Torah? The questions have everything to do with our ethics, faith and commitment to avodat Hashem. There are no questions about what car you drove. There are no questions regarding how lavish the simchas that you made. There are no questions about how exotic your vacations were. There are no questions of how many “likes” and “retweets” you earned on your social media pages.
While I am in no position to preach morals and values, I believe that as we enter the Pesach season, we should be focused on answering questions regarding how we utilize our freedoms. If we have gained financial freedom, do we use our wealth for lofty purposes? If we have the freedom of civil liberties, do we use those liberties to do good and help make a better world? If we have freedom of time, do we spend that time wisely?
Bringing ‘Seder’ to Our ‘Pursuits’
In recent years I have shared with my readers that my favorite Jewish holidays are Yom Kippur and Pesach. Until recently I did not necessarily see a connection. But as I have been writing this piece I have now come to an understanding. Both Yom Kippur and Pesach are holidays that afford us the opportunity to take stock of our lives, our ambitions and our pursuits. I have always believed that Seder night is one of the holiest nights of the year for the Jewish people. Not only are we having an intimate evening with family and friends, we are passing on the mesorah of our ancestors, teaching and learning the history of our people and gaining a better understanding of our relationship with Hashem. Finally, we close the evening with the opportunity to express our hakarat hatov to Hashem for the beneficence He bestows upon us from year to year and every day. The Seder allows us to reflect on how we can make the most of our lives — how we can use our resources to make the world a better place — how we can draw closer to our family and how we can draw closer to God.
Ultimately, we should not necessarily be “chasing” freedom. Rather we should be “embracing” and “appreciating” our freedom that allows us to direct our lives in the pursuit of a meaningful and purposeful future.
To all I wish a “zissen” and meaningful Pesach.
Jonathan D. Caplan, a former Wall Street executive, is president and founder of wealth management firm Caplan Capital Management, Inc., with offices in Highland Park and Hackensack. He holds a B.A. from Yeshiva University and an MBA in finance from New York University Stern School of Business. You can find other recent investment articles by Jonathan at www.caplancapital.com/blog.