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Mitzvot: Paths to Freedom or Yokes of Subservience? by Dr. Saul Stokar
Mitzvot: Paths to Freedom or Yokes of Subservience? by Dr. Saul Stokar

Volume 5 , Issue 1

It might seem that one of the least appropriate adjectives to be used in describing an observant Jew is that he or she is ?free.? Indeed, quite the opposite appears to be the case. One who takes upon himself the observance of the 613 commandments and the even larger corpus of rabbinic laws, enactments and customs, would seem to be surrendering his freedom, subjugating his personal freedom to the legal and moral framework of Judaism. Even the nomenclature used by the Rabbis supports this view. They refer to the observance of Judaism as ?the yoke of Torah and the commandments,? purposely choosing the word yoke which, throughout Scripture, denotes burden and coercion. He who leads an observant lifestyle is described as ?within the four cubits of the Law,? conjuring up an image of confinement and constriction.

Numerous midrashim comment on the all‑encompassing nature of the observance of the precepts. R. Meir taught:

There is not a man in Israel who does not perform one hundred mitzvot each day -- There is not a man in Israel who is not encompassed by mitzvot.1

Another b'raita that parallels the dictum of R. Meir tells

The Rabbis taught: Beloved are Israel, for the Holy One, blessed be He, encompassed them with mitzvot ‑ tefillin (phylacteries) on their arms, tzitzit (fringes) on their garments and mezuzot on their portals. Concerning them David said ?Seven times a day do I praise Thee because of thy righteous ordinances? (Ps. 119:164) [a reference to the four tzitzit, the two tefillin and the mezuzah]; and when David entered the bathhouse and saw himself naked, he said: ?Woe is me for I am naked, without precepts,? but when he remembered the circumcision in his flesh his mind was set at ease.2

In a similar vein, another midrash emphasizes the motif that the Lord left nothing in the world for which He did not ordain a mitzvah.

This is the meaning of Scripture ?light is sown for the righteous and gladness for the upright in heart;? (Ps. 97:11) and it further says, ?The Lord was pleased, for His righteousness sake, to make the teaching great and glorious.? (Is. 42:21) The Holy One, blessed be He, sowed the Torah and the mitzvot for Israel so that He might enable them to inherit the life of the world to come. He left nothing in the world for which He did not ordain a mitzvah for Israel. When he [the Jew] goes forth to plow, [he is enjoined], ?Thou shalt not plough with an ox and an ass together;? (Deut. 22:10) to sow, ?Thou shalt not sow thy vineyard with two kinds of seed;? (ibid. 22:9) to reap, ?When thou reapest thy harvest in thy field [and hast forgotten a sheaf in the field though shalt not go back to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless and for the widow];? and (ibid. 24:19) if he kneeds [sic] , ?Of the first of thy dough ye shall set apart a cake for a gift.? (Num. 25:10)3

Another midrash further amplifies the point:

What is the meaning of the verse ?For they [mitzvot] are a graceful garland for thy head (Prov. 1:9)? R. Phineas bar Hama said, ?Wherever you go the mitzvot accompany you. When thou buildest a new house, then thou shall make a parapet for the roof." (Deut. 22:8). If you put in a door, the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written ?And thou shall write them upon the doorposts of thy house and on thy gates.? (ibid., 6:8) If you wear new garments the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written ?Thou shalt not wear a garment of diverse kinds (kila'im).? (ibid., 21:11) When you shave, the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written, ?Thou shalt not round the corners of thy head.? (Lev. 19:27) If you go out to plow your field, the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written, ?Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together.? (Deut. 22:10) When you sow your field, the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written, ?Thou shalt not sow thy vineyard with diverse seeds.? (ibid., 22:9) When you reap the field, the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written, ?When thou reapest thy harvest in thy field and hast forgotten a sheaf in the field [etc].? (ibid., 24:19). Says the Holy One, blessed be He, even if you do nothing but walk along the road, the mitzvot accompany you. From whence do we know this? As is it written, ?If a bird's nest chance to be before thee in the way [? thou shalt not take the mother bird together with the young].? (ibid., 22:6)4

Our sages recognized that these all‑encompassing mitzvot could be viewed by some as an onerous burden. In an insightful commentary on the revolution instigated by Korah, (Num. 16) they described the propaganda Korah used in order to win converts to his side:

Blessed is the man who stands not in the way of sinners nor sits in the seat of scorners," (Ps. 1:1) ‑ this refers to Korah, who scorned Moses and Aaron. What did he do? He incited the whole congregation against them, as it is written, ?And Korah gathered all the congregation against them (Num. 16:19) and began to deride them. He said, `There was once a widow in my neighborhood with two young daughters and they possessed but one field. When they went to plow it, Moses said to them `Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together.' When they tried to sow the field, Moses said to them `Thou shalt not sow thy field with diverse seeds.' When they harvested the crop, he said `leave the corners of the field, the forgotten sheaves and the gleanings.' When she piled the grain in the granary, Moses said to her `You must set aside the first and second tithes and the heave offering.' She accepted the Law and gave them to him. Having no other recourse, the widow sold the field and used the money to buy sheep, expecting to use the shearings for clothing and to profit from the offspring. As soon as they gave birth, Aaron came and said to her `Give me the first born, for so said the Holy One, blessed be He, `All the firstling males that come of thy heard [and of thy flock thou shalt sanctify to the Lord].' (Deut., 15:19) She accepted the decree and gave him the firstborn offspring. When the time of shearing approached, Aaron returned, saying `The first of the fleece of thy sheep shalt thou give him [the priest].' (ibid., 17:4). The widow said, `I have not the strength to stand up to this man [Moses]. I have no recourse but to slaughter the sheep and eat them.' She slaughtered the sheep the Aaron returned, saying `Give me the shoulder, the cheeks and the stomach (the priestly gifts).' She said, `even after I slaughtered them I cannot escape him [Moses]' so she said `I declare them devoted [to the Lord].' Said Aaron, `now they are wholly mine, for such has the Holy One, blessed be He, said, `Everything devoted in Israel shall be thine [the priests].'' Aaron took the sheep, leaving the woman crying amidst her two young daughters. `This,' concluded Korah, `is what they [Moses and Aaron] did to this poor robbed woman and they blame it on the Holy One, blessed be He!?5

On the other hand, the Sages also presented the performance of the mitzvot in an entirely different light. In describing the tablets that Moses received on Mt Sinai, Scripture states, ?And the Tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved [harut] upon the tablets.? (Exod. 32:16) The word harut [engraved] is unique to this verse in all the Scripture, and the commentators puzzle over its etymology.6 For the sages, it was taken as a veiled reference to the word herut? [freedom]:?

And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets ‑ read not ?harut" [engraved] but ?herut? [freedom].


Three interpretations were offered, by R. Judah, R. Nahman and the Rabbis.? R. Judah said, the freedom alluded to is freedom from the Angel of Death. R. Hahman said that the freedom alluded to is freedom from subjugation. The Rabbis maintain that the freedom alluded to is freedom from suffering.7


Yoke but Benefits

These sages maintain that God has intended that the acceptance of the yoke of Torah and mitzvot be accompanied by benefits to the Jewish people. Had Israel not sinned with the golden calf, the Torah they accepted at Sinai would have freed them from some of the various ills to which the human race is prey ‑ suffering, subjugation and even death.

However, the most profound interpretation of the allusion to freedom in the verse in Exod. 32 is that which is offered anonymously in the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot):

And the tablets were the work of God and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets ‑ read not ?harut? [engraved], but ?herut? [freedom] for the man is never more free than when he occupies himself with the study of the Torah.8

At first glance the homily appears quite startling. In what sense is a man free when engaged in Torah? When does observance cease to be a burden and start to become a liberating factor? The idea of Torah as a path to liberation is echoed in a marvelous short poem written by the eleventh century poet‑philosopher Rabbi Judah Halevi. He writes [in the author's poor paraphrase]:

Slaves of their appointment books are but slaves of slaves

The slave of the Lord, he alone is free.

Therefore, when each man states what his portion be,

My portion is with the Lord, that is what my soul craves.9

Halevi returns to this theme in a number of other poems10 as well as in his philosophical work The Book of the Khuzari. When the Rabbi informs the king of the Khazars that he is planning to emigrate to Israel, the king comments:

Previously I thought that you cherished freedom, but now I see that you wish to increase your servitude with the additional religious obligations you will be required to fulfill in the land of Israel, obligations from which you are exempt today [in galut].

To which the Rabbi responds:

I only seek freedom from the service of those numerous people whose favor I do not care for, and shall never obtain, though I work for it all my life. Even if I could obtain it, it would not profit me ‑ I mean serving men and courting their favor. I would rather seek the service of the One whose favor is obtained with the smallest effort, yet it profits in this world and the next. This is the favor of God. His service spells freedom and humility before Him is true honor.11

Apparently, when the Sages referred to a ?free? man, they did not mean one who is simply free of external, physical constraints. Indeed, such a definition of freedom is not unique to Judaism. In the opening lines of ?The Social Contract,? Rousseau wrote:

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others and still remains a greater slave than they.12

In a similar vein, Henry David Thoreau wrote:

It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are a slave driver of yourself."13

What, then, is the true meaning of freedom? One's definition of freedom is determined by one's outlook on life. In the 1940's Jean‑Paul Sartre wrote:

We were never more free than under the Nazi occupation. We had lost all our rights, beginning with the right to speak. We were insulted daily and had to bear those insults in silence. On one pretext or another ‑ as workers, Jews, political prisoners ‑ Frenchmen were deported ? And because of this we were free. Every instant we lived to the full meaning of that banal little phrase ?All men are mortal.? The choice that each of us made of his life and his being was a genuine choice because it was made in the presence of death; because it could always have been expressed in the form ?Rather death than ??14

Hence, according to Sartre, freedom is intimately connected with meaningfulness. Only in that sort of life in which actions are meaningful does freedom have any real meaning. In the 1970's, Janis Joplin expressed precisely the opposite idea when she sang, ?freedom's just another name for nothing else to lose.?

For Joplin, freedom is no more than an expression of a loss of will, an inability to live a meaningful life. This attitude was colored by Joplin's lack of meaning in life and other psychological problems as evidenced by her eventual suicide.

Contemporary Jewish thinkers have also addressed themselves to the question of freedom and its place within Judaism. Abraham Joshua Heschel trenchantly analyzes the difference between freedom and slavery when he writes:

@QUOTEOPEN = For integrity is the fruit of freedom. The slave will always ask, what will serve my interests? It is the free man who is able to transcend the causality of interest and deed, of act and the desire for personal reward. It is the free man who asks: ?Why should I be interested in my interests? What are the values I ought to feel in need of serving??15

A similar idea is put forward by R. Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, of blessed memory:

@QUOTEOPEN = The difference between the free man and the slave is not merely the technical difference in their legal status. We find examples of slaves whose souls are free and of free men whose souls are enslaved. The characteristic feature of freedom is that exhaultation of spirit in which both individual man as well as the entire nation are uplifted to fulfill their true natures, to realize the ?divine image? within them. In this way, man experiences his life as purposeful and valuable. Such is not the case for one with an enslaved spirit, whose life's purpose is rooted in the dispositions and values of his master rather than in those of his own souls.16

The idea that performance of the commandments has an ontological function is carried to its furthest extreme by Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik in his work In Aloneness, In Togetherness. Rav Soloveichik develops the idea that there are two levels of men: ordinary man, who is simply a representative member of the human species, bearing all the characteristics of the human race; and the man of God, each of whom is a unique, self‑defined creature, subject only to the constraints and characteristics he imposes upon himself from within. He writes:

@QUOTEOPEN = The principle of free will expresses itself in two ways. [a] Man is free to re‑create himself as a ?man of God? and to smash the iron constraints of his mortality, those constraints that define him as a mere human, subject to the forces and laws of his species. [b] The ?man of God,? re‑created by man himself, is not subject to the forces attendant upon the human animal, since he exists in his own private realm. His entire existence is that of a unique indivudal, with his own particular profile and character, one whom the teleological necessity of the species does not affect. Maimonides took from Aristotle the doctrine that all ?lawfulness?17 is internal teleology ‑ the expression of the ?form? of the species on the particular individual. Thus, as long as man does not elevate himself to that level of existence that exceeds the ?general? and enters the ?unique,? he is subject to the forces of the species and external forces. However, when he frees himself from the bonds of his species, he becomes a free man. Complete freedom belongs to the prophet, the ?man of God.? The ?man of species? is entirely subjugated to the laws of existence. Men oscillate constantly between these two modes ‑ being ?man of species? and ?man of God? ‑ between necessity and freedom, alternately rising up and falling back down. Initially, man realizes all the powers of his species contained within him, completely realizing his human nature. After realizing this general form, he attains a particular, unique existence ‑ a creative spirit ‑ and leaves the realm of the species and enters his own personal realm."18

A completely different view of the observance of the commandments is suggested by Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz. According to Leibowitz, any approach which suggests that the commandments have any human‑oriented purpose is idolatrous. Indeed, for Leibowitz, it is the very unintelligibility and irrationality of the commandments, their complete detachment from all human needs and purposes, that is the liberating aspect of observance:

@QUOTEOPEN = Both the concepts of ?subjugation? as well as the concept of ?freedom? require semantic analysis. Our sages say: ?Nature takes its course? ‑ that is, there is order in the way that the universe evolves and there are functional connections between events. It is precisely this realization of the nature of the world in which man exists, that is the truly religious outlook and forms the basis of observance, of a life based on halakha, as opposed to a view based on continual Divine intervention. If the world is ordered and ruled by physical laws, then man, too, is part of that order, subject to Nature, which includes not only his body, but also his soul; his psyche is also ruled by Nature. Accordingly we ask, what is man's freedom? Accepting a way of life that doesn't spring from his own natural tendencies means that man frees himself from the bondage of blind Nature. There have been many definitions of freedom; the most profound is Spinoza's philosophical definition ‑ ?That which exists from the necessity of its own nature alone and is determined to action by itself alone.? Does man have a nature of his own? Man, viewed in a biological context, is nothing more than one link in the long chain of elements of the blind forces of Nature and his psyche is no more than an expression of these forces. What is man's ?independence?? Man ruled strictly by his own ?nature? is nothing more than a robot ruled by the forces of Nature, like a cow grazing in the pasture, who is also not subject to Torah and mitzvot ‑ that is, from all external coercion. Rava said: ?All bodies are receptacles. Happy is he who merits being a receptacle for the Torah.? (T.B. Sanhedrin 97) Man is never entirely independent; he is always a receptacle for something other than himself. He who acts entirely under Spinoza's freedom is still restrained by his ?nature,? which is no more than an expression of the blind forces of Nature, as well as the various psychological forces ‑ his desires, aspirations and inclinations. From a religious point of view, there is no room for the trichotomy nature‑spirit‑God. There is only dichotomty ‑ nature, including man's spirit and God. In only one way can man break out of the constraints imposed upon him by the forces of Nature ‑ cleaving to the Lord, which is accomplished practically by following the will of God and not the will of man, as the latter is likewise a natural force. In this sense, any religious credo which reflects man's aspirations and man's dreams is mere idolatry. In contrast to the modern, atheistic distortion of the Bible, it is important to emphasize that the Bible does not recognize man's spirit as the antithesis of the ?material,? but God's spirit. ?Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit says the Lord of Hosts.? (Zachariah 4:6) Man's spirit belongs to the class of ?might? and ?power.? Thus, there is no freedom from the bondage of Nature, save by the acceptance of the yoke of Torah and mitzvot, a yoke which does originate in Nature. This is the meaning of the phrase ?the only free man is he who engages in Torah.? He is free from slavery to Nature, since he lives a life which opposes that nature, whether in its general manifestation or its particular human manifestation. Therefore, there is no need, both from a religious as well as from a psychological point of view, to relate the mitzvot to man's needs or to his realm. Rather, their strength lies in their unrelatedness. Attempts to rationalize the mitzvot and investigations into the reasons for the precepts are pointless both religiously and philosophically, and have merely theological or psychological interest.19

While most Jewish thinkers, including Maimonides, maintain that the commandments, or at least some of the commandments, are for man's benefit, for Leibowitz this is a sacrilege. Only by performing the mitzvot for no other reason than that they are God's ineffable Will does one perform them in a truly religious fashion.

In the opening lines of the Passover Haggadah we read, ?This year we are slaves; next year may we be free men.? A fragment found in the geniza contains a variant reading, ?Yesterday we were slaves, today we are free men.? Rabbi Menachem Kasher suggests that the two versions of the text reflect two distinct philosophies, both of which are illustrated in a talmudic discussion in Tractate Megillah. The talmud raises the question, ?Why is it that on Purim we do not recite the Hallel (the thanksgiving hymns of the book of Psalms) as on Passover??

@QUOTEOPEN = R. Nahman says, the reading of the Megillah is itself the Hallel. Rava said, at the time of the Exodus the Jews were justified in reciting the Hallel, singing ?Praise Him, O servants of the Lord? (Psalms 113:1) ‑ by inference, the Lord's servants and not Pharoah's servants. However, on Purim could they sing ?Praise Him, O servants of the Lord? [and by inference] and not the servants of Ahasverosh ‑ but we are still servants of Ahasverosh! [i.e., the Jews remained in exile following the miracle of Purim]20

According to Rav Kasher, the argument between R. Nahman and Rava concerns the nature of servitude. In Rava's opinion, at a time when the Jews are physically subjugated, it is improper to recite the Hallel. R. Nahman, however, believes that physical subjugation is irrelevant. After the Exodus, after the Jews received the Torah at Sinai, have always been spiritually free and the recitation of the Hallel is always appropriate. On Purim, however, the reading of the Megillah itself is a replacement for the Hallel. Rav Kasher concludes with the following:

@QUOTEOPEN = This is the meaning of the phrase in the Hagaddah ?In every generation one ought to look upon himself as if he personally had gone out of Egypt ? Not only our ancestors alone did the Holy One, blessed be He, redeem, but also us has He redeemed with them.? This unique virtue ‑ that fact that we feel ourselves to be eternally free men ‑ was installed in our breasts at the time of the Exodus, as it is written: ?According to the word that I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt, so My spirit remaineth among you, fear ye not.? (Haggai 2:5) That spirit of the Eternal, that spirit of freedom which He has implanted within us, shall not depart from us unto eternity."21

This is the challenge the observant Jew faces each and every day of his life, every time he or she performs a mitzvah ‑ the challenge to view the mitzvot not as a burden, but as a path to man's liberation. May we all be blessed to meet this challenge accordingly, fulfilling the dictum ?there is no man so free as he who engages in Torah.?

@NOTES: = Notes:

@NOTES: = 1. T.B. Berachot ix, 5. See also Tosefta Berahchot vi, 31.

@NOTES: = 2. T.B. Menahot 43b

@NOTES: = 3. Tanhuma, ed. Buber Shelah, sect. 28

@NOTES: = 4. Deut. Rabba vi, 3

@NOTES: = 5. Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers 750

@NOTES: = 6. See the commentaries of Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra to the verse, as well as Onkyles' translation.

@NOTES: = 7. Leviticus Rabba xviii, 3

@NOTES: = 8. Pirkei Avot, vi, 2.

@NOTES: = 9. Contained in Hebrew Poetry in Spain and Provence, ed. H. Sherman, Bialik Institute and Dvir Co., 1960 p. 521.

@NOTES: = 10. ibid., p. 494, 499

@NOTES: = 11. The Book of the Khuzari, Book V, 24‑25.

@NOTES: = 12. The Social Contract and Other Discourses, trans. G.O. H. Cole (1913) Everyman's Library, ed.

@NOTES: = 13. From the essay Economy in Walden. See The Works of Thoreau, ed. Carl Bode, Viking Press (1947).

@NOTES: = 14. Situations, Jean‑Paul Satre, Gallimard, Paris (1949) iii, 11‑12.

@NOTES: = 15. Man is not Alone, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish Publication Society, p.142.

@NOTES: = 16. Ma'amare Hareiah, A.Y.H. Kook, Jerusalem (1984).

@NOTES: = 17. Rav Soloveichik refers here to any set of rules or laws that govern phenomena, such as the laws of nature, the law of survival, or the laws of animal behavior, for example.

@NOTES: = 18. In Aloneness, in Togetherness, Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveichik, Orot, Jerusalem (1976) pp. 184‑6.

@NOTES: = 19. Judaism, the Jewish People and the Nation of Israel, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Shocken, 1979 pp. 29‑30.

@NOTES: = 20. T.B. Megillah 14a.

@NOTES: = 21. See the first appendix to the second edition of Hagaddah Shelemah, ed. Rabbi Menachem Kasher, (1977).

@AUTHINFO = Dr. Saul Stokar is a physicist who does research on magnetic resonance for Elscint Corporation. He lives in Israel.



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