Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Torah and Freedom

‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’

So go the words to a famous Janis Joplin song. But is that truly what freedom is? I suppose from a perspective of deprivation one can characterize freedom that way. But this is an extremely unfortunate perspective: To be ‘free’ to do what one wants because one no longer cares about the consequences is not freedom at all. It is resignation to a fate whose consequences are so awful that the consequences of whatever one does after that don’t matter anymore.

This is not freedom at all. But what is freedom then? Is it the freedom to do whatever one wants in life? Of course not. That would imply that one does not care about the consequences to others. That hurts society and ultimately the very individual who cherishes his freedom.

I suppose that one can look at the American bill of rights. There one will find guarantees about freedom of religion and freedom of the press. As long as one’s freedom does not impinge the rights of others, Americans are free to follow their hearts.

Is the constitutional guarantee of "liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" what freedom is all about? Is it about the pursuit of happiness?

I think the answer to that can be found in the Torah. Freedom is a constant theme in the Exodus Story. But the freedom that God grants the Jewish people is the freedom to observe Torah and Mitzvos. Without that happiness is an elusive and perhaps even an empty pursuit. As anyone who achieved great material success will tell you once one achieves it the materialism by itself is pretty meaningless. What happiness does a luxury automobile like a Lexus truly bring except for a few initial moments of pleasure. After a while a Lexus becomes just a car.

So what then is true freedom and what is its purpose? Rav Ahron Soloveichik describes it in the context of Maamad Har Sinai.

There is an apparent contradiction about how our ancestors received the Torah.

On the one hand the Torah (Shemos 24:7) tells us that our forefathers accepted the Torah at Sinai with the phrase Na’aseh V’Nishma – we will do and we will listen. The point being that they were so enamored with the Torah that they were willing to promise to do everything it demanded before they even knew what that was!

On the other hand there is another phrase in the Torah (Shemos 19:17) which indicates that they were forced to accept the Torah upon threat of annihilation. ‘VaYisyatzvu B’Tachtis HaHar’ – ‘And they stood at the foot of the mountain. The Gemarah in Shabbos (88a) relates that Rav Avdimi Bar Chama Bar Chasa said this teaches us that God held the mountain over them like a cask and declared, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine. If not – THERE will be your burial place!

Rav Ahron tells us that these two verses are not a contradiction at all. Our ancestors did not really at first hesitate which subjected them to a Divine threat of annihilation and then immediately become so enamored of God’sproximity that they said Na’aseh V’Nishma.
A Midrash on Shir HaShirim can help explain the discrepancy.

According to this Midrash when God offered the Torah to our forefathers He asked for guarantees that the Torah would be observed. At first they offered the patriarchs and the prophets but God rejected both proposals. Only when the nation said ‘Our children will be sureties’ - a promise that future generations will keep the Torah - did God accept their offer. The Torah was too precious to be given only to a single generation.

The Bnei Yisroel stood at the foot of the mountain and were in such close proximity to God - they felt adapted to the principles of the Torah. Consequently they sincerely proclaimed ‘Na’aseh V’Nishma’. But with respect to future generations they opined that they could not make any such commitment. How could they promise anything for the as of yet unborn children who did not experience the miracles of the Exodus and would be faced with strong temptations to transgress? At this point God coerced the Bnei Yisroel to pledge that future generations would also be devoted to Him.

That is why the word ‘there’ is used instead of ‘here’ when God threatened to bury them. The burial place will be there – where ever the Jewish people are if they neglected the Torah.

The Talmud’s simile that God ‘held the mountain over them like a cask’ is also an exact expression. Freedom is the most important gift bestowed upon man, but it is also the most abused and misunderstood among all moral values. From the Torah’s perspective, freedom is not to be treated like an opportunity to realize one’s potential; it is not an end in and of itself.

The last Mishneh in all of Shas states: R’ Shimon ben Chalafta said, God did not find any better cask in which blessing can be kept than peace. For it is written: ‘God will give strength to His people; God will bless His people with peace’ (Tehilim 29:11)

Shalom – peace means the absence of conflict and abuse of power. This is synonymous not only with peace but also with freedom. Freedom is declared to be cask wherein the ‘wine of Torah’ is kept. It is merely the ‘container’ of opportunity by which the fulfillment of man’s moral and spiritual potential can be realized in the physical universe. So long as the cask is held with its opening on top, the wine can be preserved.

But if it is overturned the wine will spill out onto the ground. So long as the Jewish people treat freedom as a cask – as an opportunity whereby the unique image of God that inheres in their souls can be realized, then freedom is to be a source of blessing. If freedom is to be overturned – meaning to be treated like an end in and of itself, the ‘wine’ will spill out and freedom will be lost to the grave of absorption.

Only by utilizing freedom properly, by realizing the image of God within us, by committing and dedicating ourselves and our children to the Torah, can we preserve the blessing for our generation and all future ones.

Based on ‘The Warmth and the Light’ by Rav Ahron Soloveichik.