THE BLOG
01/11/2013 11:15 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

What Baby Elephants Can Teach Us About Human Freedom

Every year at this season I am reminded of baby elephants. The New Year is just behind us, and our conversations still echo with resolutions filled with hope for changes both simple and profound. In the traditional Jewish cycle of sacred text, this is the season in which we read about how our greatest biblical leader, Moses, grows increasingly frustrated over the Israelites unwillingness to hear his exhortations to freedom. So inevitably I think about the famous story of how they train baby elephants in the circus. They take them when they are still small and tie a strong rope around their necks and attach the rope to a secure pole. The baby elephants naturally try to walk away and are stopped by the rope. They pull and push and twist and turn and eventually figure out that they just aren't strong enough to break free of their shackles, so they stop resisting and just stay where they are.

The next time they tie up the baby elephants they try to break away once again, pulling on the rope to see if they can go free. When they figure out that once again it is futile, they stop pulling and settle down and stay where they are.

The same thing happens over and over until eventually, when the rope is put over their heads, they no longer pull and push and try to break free because they know it is futile. That is why in captivity you can walk by a circus and see giant elephants standing passively with a rope tied around their necks that isn't attached to anything at all.

The elephant becomes so accustomed to being held back by the rope, that merely the rope itself keeps the animal in check. If only they knew how powerful they really are. If only they realized that by the time they have grown up, even a rope "secured" to a pole can no longer contain them. Then they would know what true freedom is. But they don't.

Moses tells the same story. God tells Moses that God has heard the cries of the children of Israel in their slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt and to tell them that God will rescue them from under their burdens, rescue them from their toil, redeem them with an outstretched arm and fulfill the promise of bringing them in freedom to the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But human (and elephant) nature being what it is, "...Moses spoke this to the children of Israel and they did not listen to Moses because of shortage of spirit and because of hard work" (Exodus 6:9).

Here was God offering them liberation. Here was Moses offering them redemption. Yet, they were so beaten down and accustomed to slavery that, like the elephants, they simply couldn't see it right before their eyes.

The Hebrew says they wouldn't listen to Moses "mekotzer ruah," which is usually translated as "their spirits were crushed" or "shortness of spirit." But I believe a better translation would be "narrowness of vision." They weren't able to see the liberation that was right before their eyes because they lacked vision, both literally and figuratively.

Literally, their eyes were those of slaves -- cast upon the ground, avoiding eye contact, unassertive, not aggressive, non-threatening, without real vision. Figuratively, they had been slaves so long they simply could not imagine anything better, bolder, brighter, bigger for their lives. They lost the ability to dream, to visualize their lives as free men and women, to embrace a vision of a better life and a better them.

So they didn't, or couldn't, listen to Moses and his promise. They just couldn't do it.

One of my frustrations almost daily as a rabbi is to see so many who still live like our ancestors in Egypt. They are fearful to have a vision of their lives that exalts them and could set them free. What this biblical story teaches us is that just as the elephant could set himself free if he only chose, we can do the same for ourselves, as well.

What I have learned about life is that most often the real difference between personal slavery and freedom is simply vision. It is recognizing that it is ours to choose; that the chains with which we are held are mostly in our minds and not around our ankles. It took the children of Israel a long time to realize what most of us must learn as well -- that freedom is ours to take, hope is ours to embrace, and meaning and purpose in life are ours to envision at any moment in our lives. So my resolution for this New Year is to do whatever I can to constantly remind myself and those I serve that attitude is everything in life, and if you think you can or think you can't you are probably right. This year just might be a year of personal liberation for us all.