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I stood between the train cars, wind blowing in my hair, watching the Mexican countryside flash by. With each passing hour the train wheels carried me further from my obligations, my bills, my job, and the people who knew me. In twelve more hours, my wife and two children and I would get off the train, ride a bus for several hours, and then take a boat to a place where no one knew us. A place where I would receive no phone nor electric bills, because there would be neither electricity nor phones. Nor were there any roads in the small village that would be our home, so there would be no automobile to care for, no insurance fees or gas expense. The palm-thatched palapa in which we would live cost $150 per year. I would live off the land with my hands, my machete, and a crude, Mexican-made fishing device to supply most of our food.

I was free! I had left bills, obligations, the constraints of societal norms, and the expectations of others behind me. My time and my life were my own.

Today, I have seven children. I work 12 to 14 hours a day. I have even less time than money. My obligations to family, work, and community are greater than anything I left behind when I boarded that decrepit train to Mexico. And yet, there is a sense of freedom in these obligations that surpasses the most idyllic, sun-filled days spent fishing in a dugout canoe on the Pacific Ocean.

A hungry person is not free, but enslaved by the need to end the growling in his stomach. In those Mexican days, I was hungry for the connection and fulfillment that I thought I would find in this primitive, natural environment. The freedom and pleasure I discovered were wonderful, but only a diversion from the goal that I had set off to achieve. Late at night, sitting in our palapa, the kids tucked into their hanging bamboo beds, the kerosene lantern casting its glow around the makeshift table, dimly illuminating the palm fronds that surrounded our home, I would feel the same emptiness that had taken me to Mexico in the first place. And though I would not dwell on the thoughts and feelings that crept into consciousness in the silence of the night, I knew that the true purpose of this journey was not being achieved. I was still starving for meaning in life.

My hunger had taken me through many experiences and investigations, much study and exploration. It was a search that had gone from the mountaintops of Oregon to the jungles of Mexico and many places in between. But I didn't find freedom from this hunger until I reached the gray, workaday city of Milwaukee. Because it was in Milwaukee that I discovered Chabad and Torah-true Judaism.

One cannot be truly free unless one knows who he really is, what he really wants and what he is meant to do. Regardless of how fantastic or romantic, dramatic or adventurous the masks I wore, they were in the end only masks, and not my real face. I am not a machete-carrying Mexican peasant working the land. I am a Jew connected to G‑d through Torah and mitzvot. And when I am being who I truly am and fulfilling the purpose for which I was brought into the world, the yokes of worldly obligation are no longer the markers of whether or not I am free. They become the tools with which I exercise my freedom.

I need my car to deliver mishloach manot on Purim. I must earn money to give my children the education they need to become Torah-loving people. The telephone is vital to my work and to the ability to communicate words of Torah or to help a friend. The rent I pay (more dollars per week than what I paid for a years use of the palapa in Mexico) provides a home filled with Torah and learning, with mitzvot and good deeds, with warmth and love and nurturing for my children in a community and environment that strengthens, supports and encourages the values upon which I base my life.

The adventure I seek is found in the constant exploration of who I am and who I can be as I stretch further and further in my quest to become the best parent, husband, friend, Jew and Chassid I can be.

Today, my soul no longer aches. It is nourished by a connection with the Almighty and a sense of His presence in my daily hours. My hunger is filled, rather than diverted by constantly shifting adventures and pleasures. My life, thank G‑d, is filled with purpose, satisfaction and a profound love of my family.

My children are not running barefoot through the sand, but walking sure-footed through life, feet firmly planted in Torah and a way of life that cherishes the finest and highest of G‑dly and human qualities.

I don't fish, have little time for vacations, and carry a tallit bag rather than a machete. I am bound to the yoke of Torah. I am a servant (to the best of my limited abilities) of G‑d's will.

And I have never been more free.

Jay Litvin was born in Chicago in 1944. He moved to Israel in 1993 to serve as medical liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, and took a leading role in airlifting children from the areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; he also founded and directed Chabad’s Terror Victims program in Israel. Jay passed away in April of 2004 after a valiant four-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and is survived by his wife, Sharon, and their seven children. He was a frequent contributor to the Jewish website
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jak plihal palm harbor, FL April 13, 2012

beautiful thank you for taking the time to write this -- as I know I've had the craving to 'go back' to a more primitive life -- and have also found balance and joy in how I am living today. Thankfully. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY January 29, 2012

Thank you. Incredible Article. Reply

Rene´Chawes copenhagen, Denmark September 28, 2010

freedom. In hebrew the word freedom means to learn
The more you know, the more free you are.
I feel more and more free,but still I will never be absolutely free. Reply

Karen Bowie, Md March 22, 2010

Freedom I am so glad I read this. When I was determined to struggle with what G-d wanted me to do opposed to what I wanted to do- clarity came. My so called friends thought I was crazy or a fool when I said, I have a freedom I can not articulate.

So many of my colleagues want to be like me now but they are not willing to deep interospection and sacrifice. They think I'm the way I am because I want to impress people or it's magic or a game.

No, what I discovered is this: I am never alone. G-d kept His promise to never leave me. Now it's my turn to show my love. I try to understand what G-d wants me to do with my life. What is G-d's will for myself?

Occuppied with this: well, there is great freedom---a freedom hard to articulate but it is there. Reply

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