The Progression Toward True Freedom
BY RABBI REUVEN TARAGIN
Pillars of faith
In contrast to Sukkot, which commemorates a forty-year period of living in sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot commemorate events that occurred at particular moments in time. The two events that these two chagim commemorate – Yetziat Mitzrayim and Matan Torah – are the historical pillars of Jewish faith. In Mitzrayim, Hashem revealed His strength and providence, while at Sinai, He spoke to us directly in an awesome revelation. In Sefer Devarim, Moshe cites both events as the basis for our belief in Hashem as the only G-d (Devarim 4:32–39).
The Torah commands grandparents to share the significance of these events with their grandchildren (Shemot 10:2, Devarim 4:9–10), for these seminal events are more than just history. We, and all generations, are meant to see ourselves as having experienced each of them personally. On Seder night, we are commanded to feel like we ourselves are being redeemed from Mitzrayim. Similarly, the Zohar teaches that all Jewish souls were present at Matan Torah (Part 2, 83b). The strength of our faith hinges on our ability to personally connect to each of these events.
Linking Pesach to Shavuot
Pesach and Shavuot are also linked through the mitzvah of sefirat ha’omer. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the reason we count the omer is to help us realize that Yetziat Mitzrayim was just the beginning of the process meant to be completed by Matan Torah.
Yetziat Mitzrayim was the beginning of our national relationship with Hashem in which He distinguished us from our surroundings and redeemed us from servitude to them. At Matan Torah, Hashem eternalized our relationship with Him by teaching us how to serve Him. When we left Mitzrayim, we knew only what we were leaving behind. Matan Torah gave us our identity as a holy nation.
As opposed to the word chofshi, which the Torah uses to refer to a slave’s emancipation (Shemot 21:2–5, Devarim 15:12–18), Chazal use the word cherut to describe Jewish freedom, a word connoting something loftier than mere emancipation.
People associate freedom with lack of commitment and responsibility, the freedom to do whatever we want to do. Linking Pesach to Shavuot teaches us that true freedom is a two-step process: first we must free ourselves from subjugation to society’s values and our baser instincts and then we must commit ourselves to living a holy life. Avodat Hashem is true freedom because it enables us to live the way we are meant to (Akeidat Yitzchak, Devarim 26:1).
In his famous State of the Union Address about the four basic freedoms humanity deserves, Franklin D. Roosevelt defined freedom as freedom from others. Cherut, however, is true freedom: the freedom to live our lives properly. That is what philosopher John Locke meant when he contrasted liberty, the freedom to do what we ought, with license, the freedom to do what we want.
Cherut as Torah learning
Freedom depends not only on Torah observance, but also on Torah learning. “Involvement” in Torah is an important freedom facilitator because Torah learning helps us transcend our mundane world and connect to Hashem’s mode of thinking.
Chazal expressed this idea through their famous dictum that only one involved in Torah study is a “ben chorin” (Avot 6:2). Involvement in Torah is not merely one form of freedom; it is the only form! Though those involved in other pursuits may feel free, in actuality they are not.
This message is especially relevant in our times. The Industrial Revolution and technological advances shortened the amount of time needed to complete the tasks necessary to sustain life, while electricity, by lighting up the night, has extended the amount of time we can use effectively. Together, these advancements have given us unprecedented amounts of free time.
How do we spend the additional time we now have available? Sadly, most people waste much of this time on various forms of entertainment. Most people spend their free time involved in activities that do not enrich themselves or impact their surroundings in any meaningful way. As Jews, we are fortunate to know how we should spend our time: in Torah study! While mitzvot and good deeds depend on the situation we are in, Torah is always available for us to learn.
As we enter Shavuot, may we remember the true meaning of freedom and strengthen our commitment to both Torah observance and Torah learning. Chag Sameach!
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and Dean of the Yeshivat Hakotel Overseas Program.