Part IIאָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי … וְהַלֻּחֹת מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹקים הֵמָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּב מִכְתַּב אֱלֹקים הוּא חָרוּת עַל הַלֻּחֹת (שמות לב), אַל תִּקְרָא חָרוּת אֶלָּא חֵרוּת, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ בֶן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה …(אבות ו:ב)
Last week, we began studying Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s declaration that only those involved in Torah study are truly free. Rabbi Yehoshua derived this idea from the Torah’s description of the writing on the luchot as “charut,” a word spelled the same way as “cheirut — free.” What is the significance of this source? Why does the Torah choose this method of teaching us about freedom’s dependency on Torah learning?
Freedom From Others
We saw that many commentaries link Rabbi Yehoshua’s words to Rabbi Nechunya’s earlier assertion that Torah scholars are exempted from taxes and other communal responsibilities (Avot 3:5. See also Shemot Rabbah 41:7 and Avot D’Rabbi Natan 20:1)
These responsibilities are not the only way people subjugate themselves to others. Many do so by linking their identity to other people’s values and expectations. Because our true essence is our identity, doing this subjugates us in the most basic way. The worst form of slavery is that of our spirit, not our body. True freedom is not achieved through political emancipation. It is achieved by following our personal, intended life path. We are only free, when we realize our true (natural) selves.
Rav Kook (Ma’amare HaRe’eiyah, page 157) linked slavery and freedom to spiritual independence as opposed to social standing. Many live free of any and all restrictions or obligations (and may even own their own slaves), but they are — in actuality — slaves because they feel beholden to society’s expectations.
Conversely, many are physically enslaved, but actually free, because they maintain their spiritual independence. An excellent example of this phenomenon were the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. Though slave laborers of the Nazis, Rav Oshri (Shu”t Mima’amakim 3:6) — Rav of the Warsaw Ghetto — directed them to continue reciting the bracha of shelo asani aved (that we are not slaves) because they were free in spirit (and fully able to choose to commit themselves to avodat Hashem). Others can only control us physically; our spiritual identity is totally in our own hands.
The Torah teaches us eternal heavenly truth, wisdom and direction. Its study gives us the ability to free ourselves from contemporary fleeting perspectives.
The gift of Torah has enabled Jews in 100s of countries and countless social and cultural milieus to transcend contemporary values, by using Torah to reconnect with Hashem’s eternal ones. The reality of modern communications has submerged us even more deeply and intensely within broader society. Now more than ever, it is critical that we use Torah learning and Torah values to help us sustain our spiritual independence.
Freedom From (a False Version of) Our Selves
Torah learning also frees us from an internal, more subtle form of slavery: the subjugation to our own physical drives and desires and the pursuit of meaningless activities.(See Meiri and Midrash Shmuel to Masechet Avot 6:2) Focusing on important things helps us avoid focusing upon what is not (the Ri MiToledo connects this to Kohelet 10:17).
Contemporary society sees freedom as (merely) the lack of external control — freedom from commitment and responsibility. In his famous 1941 State of the Union (that later became known as The Four Freedoms Address), President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke about the freedoms of speech and worship and the freedom from fear and want. Facing the evil Nazi regime which limited these freedoms, Franklin D. Roosevelt defined the values that the United States and her allies went to war to defend.
In a broader historical sense, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address responded not only to the Nazis of his generation, but also to the abuse of the millenia of monarchies and dictatorships who institutionalized slavery and serfdom and curtailed basic freedoms. Modern democracies rejected these ills by establishing human rights as unalienable. Sadly, their emphasis on freedom also fostered a lack of responsibility and meaning. Unburdened by governmental mandates and societal norms, many people have become focused upon meaningless pursuits.
Our mishna teaches us that the only way to transcend the physical and the meaningless is to engage in the meaningful — talmud Torah. People need a mission to be passionate about. By developing a passion for Torah learning, we minimize engagement with things less meaningful.
The Maharal (Derech Chayim, Avot 6:3) explains how Rabbi Yehoshua derived this idea from Torah’s description of the letters of the luchot. The letters were engraved from the front through the back of the rock, in a way that left the internal parts of the letters “samech” and “mem soffit” disconnected from — and, thus, unsupported by — their physical surroundings. Despite their lack of physical support, these parts of the letters — miraculously — remained suspended in mid-air. The Maharal explains that, so too, a person’s focus on the spiritual helps him avoid dependency upon the physical.
Freedom to Be Our True Selves
There is a fourth way that Torah study and avodat Hashem facilitate freedom. They not only free us from commitment (sur meira), but also help us realize our true potential. Avodat Hashem and Torah make an intrinsic positive contribution (asei tov).
The Kuzari used this idea to answer the Khazar king’s question about his intended aliyah. The king asked why he sought to incur the additional mitzvot and responsibilities aliyah would generate. The Kuzari responded that “commitment to Hashem is the ultimate freedom, and subjugation to Him is the ultimate honor.”
Though we understand the Kuzari’s association of honor with avodat Hashem, it is harder to explain why he saw avodat Hashem as freedom. We understand that mitzvot are important responsibilities, but how does fulfilling them make us free?
Rav Kook (Olat Re’eiyah, dibur hamaschil: shelo asani eved) explained that (only) avodat Hashem helps us realize our soul’s true potential and forge our true identity. Food and sleep sustain our physical existence, but do not help us realize our personal potential. We accomplish that only through avodat Hashem.
This is why we use specifically the phrase “ben chorin” and the word “cheirut,” as opposed to “chofesh,” to describe our freedom. “Chofesh” means the lack of responsibility to another; “cheirut” connotes true freedom. (See Shemot 21:5 and Devarim 15:12,13,18)
We characterize the yom tov of Pesach as zman cheiruteinu (the time of our freedom) because Yetziat Mitzrayim’s goal was more than just liberation from servitude to Mitzrayim. More importantly, it facilitated avodat Hashem.
The story we tell on the Seder night is not about our physical liberation from Mitzrayim. The Haggadah summarizes the process we commemorate and celebrate on the Seder night, as our transformation from avdei avodah zara to avdei Hashem: “Mitchilah ovdei avodah zara hayu avoteinu, v’achshav kervanu hamakom la’avodato.”
Though we appreciate being freed from physical slavery, we focus on the transition to “avodat haMakom,” because that is what gives our life (and physical freedom) meaning and purpose. It is what makes us “bnei chorin” — truly free people.
May our appreciation of true freedom — and the Torah’s ability to help us achieve it — inspire us to maximize our opportunities to involve ourselves in it.
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.