The first mishnah in Pirkei Avot cites a statement from the Anshei Kenesset HaGadolah, a group of sixth century BCE jurists that constitute one of the crucial links in shalshelet hakabbalah (the great chain of Jewish being and tradition).
Even though nearly all its members remain anonymous, it is universally recognized as one of the singular institutions in the storied history of our nation. One of their greatest accomplishments was the formalization of the liturgy so that all members of our people, regardless of their level of education, would have an equal opportunity to stand before the Almighty and pour out their hearts in soulful prayer.
When we study the tefilah of Shavuot, we notice that the Anshei Kenesset HaGadolah labelled it z’man matan Torateinu (the time of the giving of our Torah). In considering this phrase, our focus is immediately drawn to the first set of the Luchot HaBrit: “Now the tablets were G-d’s work, and the inscription was G-d’s inscription, engraved on the tablets.” (Shemot 31:16)
The original Hebrew words in Tanach are written without vowels; therefore, they can be pronounced in a variety of ways that differ significantly from the Masoretic vocalized versions found in our standard texts. Chazal often utilize one of these alternative readings in order to underscore a fundamental concept or idea. The reinterpretation of our pasuk’s words, “charut al haluchot,” is a well-known example of this approach that appears in many diverse sources: “Do not read the word charut (engraved) as charut; instead, read it as cheirut (freedom).” Rather than “engraved on the tablets,” the reading, therefore, becomes “freedom on the tablets.”
Rabbinic literature views the Torah’s concept of freedom as being comprised of two aspects: negative (freedom from) and positive (freedom to). The Midrash Rabbah on Sefer Shemot (32:1 and 41:7) and Sefer Vayikra (18:3) focus on the freedom from element of the Torah, in the sense that we will ultimately be free from exile (Rabbi Yehudah), the Angel of Death (Rabbi Nechemiah), the hegemony of other nations (Rabbi Nachman) and the trials and tribulations we face on an ongoing basis (the Rabbis).
In contrast, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s statement in Pirkei Avot 6:2 underscores the positive freedom that is a hallmark of the Torah: “It says in Sefer Shemot 32:16: ‘And the tablets were the work of G-d, and the writing was the writing of G-d (charut) engraved upon the tablets.’ Do not read the [non-vocalized] word as charut (engraved); instead read it as cheirut (freedom). [This is so] since there is no one who is truly free except for one who engages in Torah study.”
In Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s view, engaging in talmud Torah is the paradigm of freedom, since it enables us to understand and fulfill Hashem’s Torah. He therefore concludes with the celebrated words, “there is no one who is truly free except for one who engages in Torah study.”
My rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, expands upon Chazal’s many statements regarding freedom in his analysis of the Exodus and the Haggadah. He notes that the Haggadah states, “vayotzi’einu Hashem E-lokeinu mi-sham (and Hashem, our G-d, took us out from there),” rather than “vayotzi’einu Hashem mi-sham” alone.
For the Rav, the significance of adding the word, “E-lokeinu,” cannot be overestimated:
“If the Haggadah had said simply Vayotzi’einu Hashem mi-sham, it would have referred only to the fact that G-d has mercy on us, that He does not tolerate injustice and iniquity, that when we pray to Him, He hearkens to our voice. … G-d intervenes in the process of nature, in history and society, saving the persecuted and protecting them against their persecutors.
“But we understand freedom at a different level than others. When we say that G-d has taken us out of the house of bondage and granted us freedom, we add that freedom consists in serving God, abiding by His will and conforming to His mitzvoth.”
This passage contains an implicit reference to a recurrent idea in the Rav’s thought, that the purpose of yetziat mitzrayim (Pesach) was to receive the Torah and its mitzvot at Mount Sinai (Shavuot), for only then could we be free: “If we had been taken out of Egypt without E-lokeinu, without accepting His code, without surrendering to His authority, without reaching a covenant with Him, without obligating ourselves to surrender freedom in order to gain a higher form of freedom — then we would have been in bondage again. Instead of bondage to Pharoah, it would have been bondage to our own fears, to our own phobias, to nature, to society, to slogans.”
With the Hashem’s help and our fervent desire, may this Shavuot be the time when we, as individuals and as a people, rededicate ourselves to renewing our covenant with the Almighty and to fulfilling His mitzvot, for then, we will be truly free. V’chane yihi ratzon.