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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley Ph.D.

Breaking Free


Polonius, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, is presented as a sincere, but also as an insufferably garrulous and "tedious old fool." The character of Polonius is the one who says the words,

This above all: to thine own self be true / And it must follow, as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Polonius uses this adage to cap a series of proverbs that he pontificates to his son Laertes, as the latter is heading back to his studies. I can't remember an actor playing Laertes, but I can imagine him rolling his eyes as Polonius preens before the audience.

The brilliance of Shakespeare, of course, is contained in the juxtaposing of the words that describe the authentic self - "to thine own self be true" - and the character Polonius, who does seem to have any access to an authentic self.

Here's a question to Mr. P.: What if in a given moment the only way I can be true to myself is to con another person? This is the dilemma of Jacob in our Torah portion, brilliantly discussed by Avivah Zornberg in her book on Genesis.

This Torah portion presents another cutting narrative of the existentialist quandary: Who am I? How did I get here? What am I supposed to do?

Put more precisely: How do I know what to do when I don't know who I am?

The acute existentialist quandaries in Genesis, of Noah, of Abraham, of Sarah seem to converge in the character of Jacob. Zornberg emphasizes Jacob's starting place as being an "ish tam" - a pure, simple, blameless, innocent man, dweller of tents. If you sit alone in your tent, untouched by the outside world, refusing to look inward, sure, you can remain innocent. "Tent" here referring to a purposeful shutting out the world of suffering, even your own.

(Sometimes when I read books on ethics, and the author ((usually a professor)) presents some quandary where if you intentionally kill one person or intentionally let one person die you can save five others, I want to say to the author, "You ever kill somebody?" "You ever watch somebody die?")

Zornberg writes, "The disintegrated, alienated and distraught consciousness . . . represents a higher mode of freedom than that of the "honest soul" . . . " (The Beginning of Desire, p. 154). Jacob symbolizes this freedom by his becoming someone other than himself. Not just that he disguises himself as his brother, but more - that in doing that disguising, in having to disguise himself, he enters into a world of ambiguity where the moral road seems to end, where a former identity has to be left behind. If Jacob will become equal to what the moment demands, he has to abandon "ish tam" - the blameless, innocent, dweller of tents. People say "it wasn't morally right for Jacob to deceive his father and steal the birthright from his brother" and the response is "exactly the point of the story." Maybe it asks of you: how far will you go to do what must be done?

The ego self seeks continuity, that you will live life in a linear way. What you will think, feel, say and do tomorrow will link pretty evenly that what you thought, felt, said and did yesterday. You don't change your mind and you don't change your stride. You stay inside your tent.

Something happens - a curve ball, a swerve that leaves you with the realization that 'what you will become' is at stake.

What you do now will shape what you are to become.

I recently sat with an older man facing family resentment. I tried to show him what he could become. He told me about his limitations, his personality, how he grew up, how set he was in his ways. His future was determined by his past and the changes asked of him were impossible. His theory of fatalism, that life was fated to go in a certain way, rescued him from an existential choice.

He said, "I see what you are saying but I don't know how to do it, and I don't think I can learn." I said, "I will teach you." He said, to his credit, "I will try."

I gave him his first lesson, and then put him to the test.

Can you see it? Can you see the flash in someone's eyes where they feel that momentary vertigo, the realization that the way they have lived was not necessary, and the way forward is open? Can you see that moment of terrifying freedom, where the will to do what is required is greater than the will to never feel regret?

You can only feel regret when you realize you could have done differently. You can see the moment, the flash of realization that "if I regret, then my heart will break with knowing what I could have been, what I could have done." Are you willing to leave your tent into the heartbreak of the world outside your own inevitability?

I can never predict who will live toward the future and who will die, tied to the past. In the one second flash in the eyes of wondering - can I do this? can I become other than how I have been? - we find the existentialist crisis. Can I break, free?

A mask can fall away and a human being, a being human, can emerge.


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