Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Iyar 5759, May 5 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Opinion & Comment
"Let Freedom Reign"
By Rabbi Pinchas Kantrowitz

"Freedom, n. 1: the quality or state of being free : INDEPENDENCE" (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

Modern American and European history can largely be understood as the quest for "freedom"; the Russian, French, and American Revolutions were successful attempts to throw off the political, economic, and social shackles which bound men for centuries. Yet this freedom, although deeply yearned for and hard earned, has been a paradoxical gift: "To know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one's freedom" (The World Book Word Power Library, pg. 309). 20th Century French Nobel Prize Winning Author, Andre Gide adds insight into our understanding of the concept of "freedom;" freedom in and of itself is not valuable, what is valuable is to know how to utilize freedom.

Indeed, eminent 20th century psychologist Erich Fromm takes this idea even further: "It is the thesis of this book that modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self . . . Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man" (Escape From Freedom, pg. viii).

Dr. Fromm was grappling with a puzzling historical phenomenon: how millions of people living in "modern," "enlightened" societies could flee from the "freedom" of the democratic republic to take "refuge" in the totalitarian regime. Written in 1941 amidst the shocking debacle of one of the most cultured and advanced societies in the world submitting itself "en masse" to the Nazi political machine, while similarly startling and distressing upheavals were occurring in Italy and Japan -- and had not long prior occurred in the Soviet Union -- Dr. Fromm's pessimistic inferences are understandable. More surprising, however, is his admission in a latter preface of his book that the situation had changed little after the passage of 25 years.

Western man apparently receives his freedom as a mixed blessing, and is not quite sure what to do with his gift. Why is this so? An exploration of the Torah approach to the concept of "freedom" will help shed light on this enigma.

What is "Freedom"?

"... And it says: `And the Tablets are the handiwork of G- d, and the handwriting is the handwriting of G-d chorus (engraved) on the Tablets.' Do not read `chorus' (engraved) but `cheirus' (freedom), for you have no free man except the one engaged in the study of Torah. ..." (R' Yehoshua Ben Levi in Pirkei Ovos 6:2).

I have often pondered the meaning of this cryptic teaching. I could understand how the Torah makes one's life more meaningful, more spiritual, more enjoyable, more truthful -- but more "free"? "Freedom" conjures images of "Woodstock,""hippies," and wild motorcycle rides, hardly what the Torah must have in mind. Yet, this is the focal point of the Torah that the Sages choose to emphasize. Merriam- Webster's definition of freedom as "independence" certainly differs significantly from the Torah conceptualization.

The Maharal of Prague in explaining this says that "slavery" is a concept that can only refer to the physical body. The physical body interfacing with the physical world is bound or "enslaved" by the physical laws of the universe. Physical substance constantly being worked on by the various forces of the universe is "enslaved" to those powers; the physical does not act upon, rather is acted upon, therefore the physical world is best portrayed through the motif of slavery.

The spiritual world, on the other hand, is "form" rather than "matter." Form acts upon and gives definition to matter. The ultimate expression of this form is the Torah, which is the "blueprint" of the universe and gives form to all matter in the physical domain.

The verse quoted by R' Yehoshua Ben Levi expresses this metaphysical reality by the choice of the word "chorus": why didn't the verse choose the term "cosuv"? To write implies to write on top of, which further implies that the writing can be erased. To engrave implies to inscribe in, which further implies that the engraving cannot be erased without destroying the medium engraved upon.

The Ten Commandments could not merely be written, they had to be engraved, the inscription had to be indelibly impressed upon the Tablets. The "form" of Torah expressed itself inexorably upon the physical "matter," so much so, in fact, that the Sages teach us that the engraving went completely through the stone Tablets, and several of the letters hung miraculously in "thin air." "Chorus" it is imperative, since it hints to the "cheirus"; "form" directing and defining "matter," the spiritual and eternal governing the material and finite -- this is ultimate freedom.

The Maharal goes further. Rebbi Yehoshua Ben Levi does not merely state that even one who studies Torah is free, rather that only one who studies Torah is free. Even an absolute monarch of a vast domain with abundant wealth and prodigious power is not absolutely free, as he always faces the threat of the insurrection of his subjects. Only one involved in the spiritual, the eternal, is capable of transcending the physical world absolutely, and dominating the physical universe. What is meant here by "study," however, is obviously more than casual perusal; to achieve the "freedom" of the Torah, it must be "engraved on the tablets of our heart," it must be "lived."

Ben Zoma queries at the beginning of the 4th chapter of Pirkei Ovos: "Who is the wise man? ... who is the strong man? ... who is the rich man? ... who is the honored man? ... " Let us add our question to his inquiry: who is the "free" man? The hippy at the Woodstock Music Festival, or the talmid chochom in the beis midrash learning gemora day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year? True, the hippy appears more "independent" from external forces acting upon and influencing his behavior. Also true, the talmid chochom leads a highly ordered existence that one can often "set one's clock to."

Upon a deeper analysis, however, a different contrast is revealed. The hippy merely believes himself to be free, but he is really "enslaved" to the passions of his body. The talmid chochom, on the other hand, is freer from the compulsions of his instincts, because he chooses what he will do, and to which societal and instinctual invitations he will respond. Moreover, the talmid chochom, with his primary focus on the spiritual aspects of his existence, is able to feel what is always truly "new" in his life -- another day to serve his Creator by learning a perpetually and infinitely new Torah, and endless opportunities to fulfill the mitzvos of his Maker. By elevating the physical and infusing it with the "form" of Torah and mitzvos, he transcends the limitations of the material world, he "frees" himself from the deterioration and decay of the physical world by converting finite physical matter into infinite spiritual form. He is the truly free man.

The Freedom of Sefiras HaOmer and Shavuos

"Usephartem lochem mimochoras haShabbos" ("And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Shabbos," [Vayikro 23:15]). The Torah teaches us that we must count seven full weeks from "the day after the Shabbos," and on the fiftieth day to celebrate the Festival of Shavuos -- the Festival of the giving of the Torah. The gemora tells us that the "Shabbos" referred to in the verse is "Yom Tov," the Yom Tov of Pesach; the counting of the "Omer" stretches from the night after the Pesach Seder until the night before Shavuos, the fiftieth day, when the "two loaves" were offered.

The Ramban learns from the word "lochem" that each individual should engage in his own counting and personal acquisition. Acquisition of what? Acquisition of himself! By counting the days of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuos one acquires themselves spiritually. More specifically, one reacquires the freedom which was granted on Pesach in a more integrated and internalized fashion; the freedom which was granted as a gift on Pesach, must now be acquired and earned. The barley offering of Pesach -- animal fodder -- is elevated and transformed to an offering of two loaves of wheat bread of Shavuos -- human food!

Granted that the gemora accepts that the "Shabbos" of the verse is "yom tov," but why the yom tov of Pesach? Why is Pesach the only one of the Three Festivals referred to as Shabbos?

Pesach is called Shabbos because of the three festivals it is the most "Shabbosdik"; just as Shabbos is the gift of Hashem to the Jewish nation that they receive without participating in the creation of the holiness of the day, so also, Pesach among the Festivals is the least "deserved," the least earned, the most granted as a gift from on High.

The nature of Shabbos and the Festivals is reflected in the blessings of the various days. On Shabbos we say: "mekadesh haShabbos" -- "Who sanctifies the Shabbos." On the Festivals we say: "mekadesh Yisroel vehazmanim" -- "Who sanctifies the nation of Yisroel and the seasons." Shabbos is accepted as a gift from on High, Hashem sanctifies the day; the Festivals involve the participation of Yisroel, together Hashem and Yisroel sanctify the Festival.

In Egypt, the Jews fell to the 49th level of spiritual impurity, one rung above the inescapable quagmire of the ultimate 50th level. Hashem had to save the Jews by commanding two new mitzvos: korbon Pesach and bris mila, to instill the people with sufficient merits by which to be redeemed. This is represented by the repeated expression of the word "blood" in the verse, ". . . in your blood you live, in your blood you live," (Yechezkel 16:6) symbolizing the blood of the Pascal lamb and the blood of the bris mila (Radak). The angels questioned Hashem at the splitting of the sea saying that "these (the Egyptians) are idol worshipers, and these (the Jews) are idol worshipers." Hashem in His abundant mercy chose us to be saved. Pesach is the Festival that most resembles Shabbos in that it was less participation and acquisition than a gift.

Rebbe Yisroel of Ruzhin learns "usephartem lochem" from the root "sapir" (sapphire). How do you "count for yourselves"? By making yourselves -- your thoughts and intentions -- as clear as sapphire.

And how, you might ask, does one make one's "thoughts and intentions as clear as sapphire"? By directing one's thoughts and intentions towards the Creator, they are purified, made "as clear as sapphire;" by directing one's thoughts and intentions towards the Creator, by attempting to "acquire Hashem," one fulfills the Ramban's instruction to "acquire yourselves"!

"Mimochoras haShabbos" signifies the vital need for emunah to take care of us "tomorrow" -- even the day after the Shabbos bounty and Divine Providence, Hashem will provide for our needs (Itureui Torah, Vayikro, p. 131). We must earn the physical gifts of the Shabbos (Pesach) by trusting in Hashem, and utilizing these physical gifts to serve Hashem.

The days of the Omer are 49 days in which the ultimate limits of the physical world are experienced and "acquired." We climb the ladder of the spiritual world of the Omer to ascend from the gift of the physical freedom of Pesach to reacquire and internalize and transform this into the spiritual freedom of Shavuos. Shavuos is ultimate freedom, the fiftieth level that is above the physical world of 7 weeks of 7 days. The fiftieth year of the Shmittah agricultural cycle, the Yovel, mandates that all slaves be freed, all debts be absolved, all property returned to its original owner. So too, the fiftieth day from Pesach is attainment of the ultimate freedom, the ultimate 50th level above the physical world -- the Torah. He who is engaged deeply in the study of, and lives by, the Torah gives form to the matter of the natural world, he is the truly free individual. The study of the Torah instills in us the emunah, by which we can reacquire ourselves.

Attaining True Freedom that One Need Not Escape

If "freedom" means merely "independence" as The Merriam- Webster Dictionary submits, then you are correct Dr. Fromm: "Freedom . . . has made [man] isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless." Can man achieve a "positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man?"

We have already ruled out the hippy at Woodstock; he is a slave to societal trends and especially to his passions. What of the utopias, all of those who dreamed of forming the perfect society? The track record they have left behind in the history books is far from impressive, ranging from ineffectual dreams to destructive and suicidal fanaticism. Perhaps this "positive freedom" cannot be created by mankind alone? Perhaps this freedom cannot even be conceived by mankind, but rather must simply follow precisely the "blueprint of Creation?"

Even in his "Foreword II" to the 24th edition of his work, Dr. Fromm seems to have missed the point. For, even as he aptly acknowledges the problem: "It becomes ever increasingly clear . . . [that t]he majority of men have not yet acquired the maturity to be independent, to be rational, to be objective." He fails to draw the proper conclusion: "We can not hope to overcome most follies of the heart and their detrimental influence on our imagination and thought in one generation; maybe it will take a thousand years. . . " (pp. xiv-xv).

As Rabbi Beryl Wein often remarks: "Some people just don't get it!" If the "majority of men" are not yet rational and objective, what will bring them to the "awareness sufficient to prevent us from committing irreparable follies"? The "rat race" is certainly not the appropriate setting for the improvement of the heart!

Dr. Fromm's failure to find a true solution to the problems that he identifies, indeed, stems from the fact that he fails to properly appreciate Judaism. Sincere Torah observant Jews live by the Truth.

Many of the "students of man and of the contemporary scene" see that indeed, the situation is growing worse, there is an ever growing gap between man's intellectual and emotional capacities. "Evolution of the heart" to their thinking is more than a "religious belief," it borders on mere fantasy. For these students of contemporary civilization, there can be only one true answer, that "the arduous thing is to know what to do with one's freedom," as this is the beginning of "positive freedom," and the expression of one's inner self.

This true positive freedom can only be attained with the aid of the Torah, the blueprint of the true inner self which, in bringing the individual to intimate contact with the Creator, assists the individual to realize the innate potentialities of this true self. "Let freedom reign" in the Jewish heart! Only then is there a chance for the Jewish people to be "a light on to the nations," and for the nations of the world to realize that since true freedom is possible, they no longer need to "escape from freedom!"

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.