"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
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
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
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"
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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!"