Rav Reuven Taragin, Educational Director at World Mizrachi
Rav Reuven Taragin, Educational Director at World MizrachiThe Western Wall Hesder Yeshiva

אָמַר 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)

Rebbe Yehoshua Ben Levi taught that only those involved in Torah study are truly free. He 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 specific source? Why does the Torah choose this method of teaching us freedom’s dependency on Torah learning?

Freedom From Others

Many associate the freedom Rebbe Yehoshua mentions with the exemption Torah scholars enjoy from taxes and other communal responsibilities. We exempt scholars from these responsibilities so they can be free to focus on their studies.

Torah study also frees its students in other ways. Many subjugate themselves to other people by falling under their sway. When we follow society’s values and expectations, we sacrifice our unique personal identity.

The worst form of slavery is that of the spirit. This is why political emancipation does not bring true freedom. We are only free when we realize our true selves by pursuing our true personal path.

Rav Kook measured slavery and freedom by spiritual independence, not social standing. One can live free of restriction and obligation (and even own slaves) but actually be a slave because he subjugates himself to society’s expectations. Conversely, many are physically enslaved but genuinely free because they maintain their spiritual independence.

The Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were an excellent example of this phenomenon. Though physically enslaved by the Nazis, Rav Oshri, the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, instructed them to continue reciting the berachah of shelo asani aved (that He did not make me a slave) because they were free in spirit and fully able to choose to commit themselves to Avodat Hashem. The Nazis may have controlled their bodies, but they retained control of their souls. Their eventual uprising merely translated their spiritual freedom into a physical reality.

Torah helps us achieve this spiritual independence by offering us eternal heavenly truth and direction. This wisdom frees us from fleeting contemporary perspectives. It has enabled us to transcend the values and milieus of hundreds of countries and cultures with which we have interacted over thousands of years.

The reality of modern media has submerged us even more deeply and intensely within secular society, threatening our unique, godly values. Now more than ever, it is critical that we use Torah learning to help us sustain our spiritual autonomy.

Freedom From (a False Version of) Our Selves

Torah learning also frees us from additional internal, more subtle forms of slavery: subjugation to our own physical drives and desires and the pursuit of meaningless activities. Focusing on what is important helps us avoid what is not.

Contemporary society sees freedom as the lack of external control — freedom from the control and expectations of others. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” State of the Union emphasized freedom of speech and worship and freedom from fear and want. Facing the evil Nazi regime, which limited personal freedoms, he identified the values that the United States went to war to defend.

In the broader historical sense, Roosevelt’s address responded not only to the Nazis but also to millennia of monarchies and dictators who institutionalized slavery and serfdom and curtailed fundamental freedoms.

Modern democracies aim to solve these issues by establishing human rights as unalienable. Unfortunately, their (over)emphasis on freedom has fostered a lack of responsibility and commitment. Released from governmental mandates and religious and societal norms, many have become addicted to pleasure and focused on meaningless pursuits.

Our mishnah teaches that the only way to avoid these pitfalls is to engage in Talmud Torah. Torah learning is a meaningful mission we can commit ourselves to. Our passion and enthusiasm for it can inspire us to minimize our involvement in trivial matters.

The Maharal explains how Rebbe Yehoshua derived this idea from the Torah’s description of the letters of the luchot. The letters were engraved entirely through the rock in a way that left the internal parts of the letters Samech and Mem Sofi disconnected from (and thus unsupported by) their physical surroundings. Despite this lack of material support, the innards of these letters miraculously remained suspended in mid-air. Like these innards, we, too, should aim to free ourselves from dependency upon the physical. We accomplish this by focusing on Torah learning and spiritual matters.

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 mei’ra) but also contribute positively (asei tov) by helping us realize our true potential.

In the Kuzari, the chaver used this idea to answer the Kuzar king’s question about his intended aliyah. The king asked why he sought to incur the additional mitzvot and responsibilities aliyah would generate. The chaver responded, "Commitment to Hashem is the ultimate freedom; subjugation to Him is the ultimate honor.”

Though we understand the Kuzari’s association of honor with Avodat Hashem, we wonder why he saw Avodat Hashem as freedom. We know that mitzvot are important responsibilities, but how does fulfilling them make us free?

Rav Kook explained that only avodat Hashem helps us realize our unique potential and forge our true identity. Hashem creates each person with a special soul that yearns for personal fulfillment. Serving Hashem, the source and designer of the soul, is the only way this can occur.

Cheirut

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.

We characterize the Yom Tov of Pesach as “z’man cheiruteinu” because Yetziat Mitzrayim’s achieved more than just liberation. It also facilitated Avodat Hashem.

The story we tell on the Seder night is not just about our physical emancipation from Mitzrayim. The Haggadah summarizes the process we commemorate and celebrate as our transformation from ovdei avodah zarah to Ovdei Hashem: “Mi’techilah ovdei avodah zarah hayu avoseinu, v’achshav kervanu haMakom la’avodato — Our ancestors initially served idols. Now Hashem has drawn us close to His service.”

Though we appreciate Hashem freeing us from physical slavery, we focus on the transition to “Avodat haMakom” because that gives our life meaning and purpose. It is what makes us “b’nei chorin” — genuinely free people.

May our appreciation of true freedom and Torah study’s ability to help us achieve it inspire us to maximize our opportunities to involve ourselves in Torah study.

Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the Educational Director of World Mizrachi and the RZA.

His new book, Essentials of Judaism, can be purchased at rabbireuventaragin.com.