Confessions of a Free!aholic

by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

I confess! I am a freeaholic. What is a freeaholic? I am addicted to offering things to other people for free. But there is no such things as a free lunch, so it is time to look at my own behavior.

Recently the Avi Chai foundation launched a new project called the ELI talks. The ELI talks (short for Engagement, Literacy and Identity) intentionally copy the more famous TED talks and invite dynamic minds in the Jewish community to offer their insights and creative ideas to a larger community.

At the inaugural program, one of the speakers was an educator named David Bryfman. Without mentioning a specific program (although I suspect he was partly talking about the free trips to Israel offered by the Birthright program) he argued that the Jewish community now has an unhealthy relationship with the word FREE. (Bryfman’s presentation can be found here.)

The Jewish community is offering FREE programs and in his words: “The current relationship with Free! in the Jewish community is actually costing us – it’s unsustainable, not viable, and cheapening the value of almost everything else around it.”

As someone who wants to enter into a contest in the Guinness Book of World Records for the number of times I have included FREE in a headline of an e-mail to our congregation, I find myself surprisingly agreeing with Bryfman and much of his argument.

Bryfman writes that FREE is “only valuable when it can lead to something else.”

He explains: “Free actually adds value if it is considered in the larger context. On the other hand, if we offer free products with no strings attached, then we are just throwing it away and we are ultimately cheapening the product.”

There is a commentary on the Torah that makes this exact point.

The Torah says that the Israelites cried out to Moses that they remembered when they used to get their fish for free back when they were slaves in Egypt. They said, “we remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge” (Numbers 11:5).

The great medieval commentator, Rashi, comments that “free” here means “free of commandments.”

The Israelites wanted to get the benefits of a relationship with Hashem without having to assume any of the responsibility that accompanies any meaningful relationship. They wanted to live a life free of commandments, without any responsibility. The Torah tells us that this desire for a life free of responsibility was a great sin for which Hashem smote them in a place called “the graves of cravers” (Numbers 11:34).

If we apply this teaching to our contemporary lives we can state that if we want to have a meaningful relationship with anyone – a friend, a community and most of all God – then we need to recognize that getting something for free is not a good thing if it means freedom from responsibility. Freedom from responsibility over the long haul will not lead us to a meaningful relationship. It is counter to what the Jewish tradition teaches. On the contrary, Hashem is telling us that if a person receives something and enjoys what they receive then they should feel a responsibility to pay for it.

Paying for it can take many forms of currency.

Of course, the fish that the Israelites enjoyed in Egypt wasn’t really free. They were really paying for it, and then some! They might not have had to pay for that fish in a store, but it certainly wasn’t free as they were working hard as slaves.

The fact that a Jewish organization invites people to a program and doesn’t charge money for that program doesn’t necessarily mean that the program is FREE, it just means it doesn’t cost American dollars.

One time a stranger came to my office and he asked me for a favor. I readily complied. He took out a check and started writing a check to our shul. I said, “Put away your money. I don’t want your money. I want your soul.” He immediately responded, “Rabbi, I would much rather give you my money than my soul.”

There are a lot of ways to pay for something and cash is usually the cheapest.

But there is a major exception to this rule.

There are some things which our rabbis tell us must be free.

The rabbis instruct us that the Torah was specifically given to the Israelites while they traveled in the desert to make the point that just as the desert is free and open to all, so too the Torah must be free and open to all. This means that people shouldn’t have to pay money for Torah. It should be accessible and open to all.

Theoretically speaking this might mean that Jewish education should be free. But this is a practical impossibility as there are costs involved that require us to pay for those costs with actual dollar bills.

So practically speaking this means that cost of Jewish education must be a shared cost; i.e. it is not only an individual responsibility but it is also a Jewish communal responsibility.

The Jewish community has a responsibility to ensure and help people get a Jewish education even if they can’t afford it. Paying for a Jewish education is not only the responsibility of an individual family it is also the responsibility of the entire community. This means that the community has to step up and offer help and incentives to people in order to fund a Jewish education.

As an example of what this might mean, I am going to offer a modest suggestion. If you don’t like my suggestion, then of course, ignore it (which you would anyway). The point is that it is only a suggestion, and the specific suggestion is not really the point; the real point is that we need to be thinking about how we as a community can offer free supplements to help families pay for a Jewish education.

My suggestion is that if a family has three children already enrolled in that Jewish Day School, than they should be allowed to send their additional children for FREE. The reason I say this is because I think our greatest resource as a Jewish community is a Jewish child. Too often I hear families tell me that they want an additional child, but they just can’t afford it. This policy would encourage people who already have shown a willingness to step up and assume the enormous responsibility of paying for a Jewish education to have more children and teach them Torah.

This is not the solution to the problem of escalating costs in Jewish education, but it is something that I think can be helpful in encouraging more families to have more children and more people to send their children to Day Schools.

Freedom from responsibility is a terrible thing, but we have to recognize that the Torah was created to be free and accessible to all and this recognition creates in all of us a shared communal responsibility.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is Rabbi, Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue, Washington D.C.

cross-posted at Huff Post Religion.