Friday, March 23, 2018

Shabbat HaGadol: Freedom

A Message for Shabbat HaGadol 2018
Click here to view as PDF

Watch my brief discussion of this issue, at SCA's Yom Iyun at Bet Torah this past Monday night, here.

Am Yisrael was instructed the elaborate laws and processes of korban Pesah immediately prior to their redemption from Egypt (Shemot 12:21-9). The timing of this missvah appears significant. It was performed during the critical moments of Am Yisrael’s anticipated freedom, as God murdered the firstborn sons of the Egyptians and spared their own. Although the specific rationale that underlay the details related to this sacrifice have long been debated, I believe that the basic concept of commandments at the time of liberation is instructive. It lends a necessary depth to our understanding of freedom.

R. Yehoshua ben Levi taught: “No one is truly free, except if he engages in Torah study”.[1] Although the strict laws and methodology of talmud Torah and the performance of its missvot seem antithetical to the standard conception of freedom, R. Yehoshua ben Levi inexplicably pointed to them as its paradigmatic expressions. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l similarly noted that the full expression of “retelling the exodus from Egypt” (sipur yessiat Misrayim) takes place through the intense study of the laws and strictures of korban Pesah.[2] How do the study of Torah and performance of its missvot relate to a proper expression of freedom? 

The well-known social psychologist Erich Fromm articulated a fundamental distinction regarding the ideal nature of freedom. He paid careful attention to Adam and Hava’s acquired “freedom” after they ate from the ess ha-da’at, and realized that although they certainly did achieve a “freedom from the sweet bondage of paradise,” they were nonetheless devoid of a “freedom to self-governance and individual realization.”[3] Without a guiding light of a “freedom to,” our “freedom from” can leave us more constricted than any prior state of slavery. 

Consider, for example, that an art professor at Sacramento State College observed that students often panic when confronted by an empty canvas. In contrast to former times, when painters had patrons who ordered portraits or painted commemorations of important events, contemporary artists are confronted by a vacuum in which no style is required and no task is demanded of them. The “freedom” of an empty canvas freezes the students. The professor realized that his students often react to the situation by “self-enslaving themselves,” and turning back to old masterpieces in search of form and meaning.[4] 

Dr. Moshe Koppel provided an excellent analogy for a similar concept: the rules of grammar. Though an outsider may believe that language would allow most expressiveness if there were no rules, the exact opposite is true. The grammar of language provides the necessary structure within which expression can flourish.[5] 

Studying Torah at the “seder of liberation” serves as our yearly reminder that “no one is truly free, except if he engages in Torah study.” Torah and missvot provide the necessary structure for our lives of “freedom to,” allowing us to circumvent the uncertainty and chaos of a life stuck in a constant state of “freedom from.” 

The paradoxical experience of attaining freedom by submitting to a context of law stretches back to an earlier time than the first seder. The elaborate rules that accompanied Am Yisrael’s performance of korban Pesah were performed by the people of Am Yisrael at the same time that they experienced a “freedom from” the Egyptians. The nation’s ability to follow the instructions provided them with the necessary medium for their transition into “freedom to” Torah and missvot

Shabbat shalom! 

Rabbi Avi Harari 


[2] See, e.g. R. Soloveitchik’s Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah (New York, NY, 2006), pg. 26-7, 99, and Haggadat Siah HaGrid (Jerusalem, IS, 1995), pg. 30-33.

[3] Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York, NY, 1969), pg. 33-34.

[4] Related by Joseph B. Fabry, in The Pursuit of Meaning: Viktor Frankl, Logotherapy and Life (Charlottesville, VA, 2013), pg. 101.

[5] Moshe Koppel, Meta-Halakhah: Logic, Intuition, and the Unfolding of Jewish Law (Lanham, MD, 1997), pg. 116-17.