Rav Yehoshua ben Levi says… And it says “And the tablets were made by Hashem, and the writing was the writing of Hashem engraved on the tablets.” (Shmot 32:16) Do not read “charut” (engraved), but “cheirut” (freedom), for man is only free if he is involved in Torah study…
The Mishnah teaches that involvement in Torah sets a persons free.
While people feel that they have an intuitive understanding of the concept of freedom, the Midrash is not satisfied. The Midrash Raba (Metzorah 18:3, Ki Tisa 41:7) effectively asks “free from what?” Three opinions are brought53 freedom from the Malach Ha’Mavet, freedom from exile/government and freedom from afflictions (issurim). The Midrash and Gemara (Eiruvin 72a) take some of these understandings quite literally. At Har Sinai, it is explained that we were indeed returned to the state of Adam Ha’Rishon prior to his sin and quite literally free from the Malach Ha’Mavet. The sin that immediately followed, however reverted them back to their original state. Also, the Gemara explains, had the luchot not been smashed, then no nation would have been able to rule over Am Yisrael.
The Mishnah however suggests that Torah can liberate us even now. Therefore we shall attempt to briefly offer different explanations of the three opinions mentioned in the Midrash.
Chazal teach us that the Malach Ha’Mavet is also synonymous with the Yetzer Ha’Rah. The Meiri explains that engagement in Torah results in a person no longer being subjected to the whims of his bodily desires. Ordinarily a person is driven by instinct and his mind already decided by his cravings. While this may have the appearance of freedom in contrast to a slave, actions are in reality predetermined. Torah frees us from that overpowering influence while introducing a gamut of real choices and, with reward and punishment delayed, we are free to choose.
Freedom from government may be readily understood for the explanation of R’ Chaim Volozhiner (Ruach HaChaim). He explains that Man is born to work (Sanhedrin 99b). This is a metaphysical reality. His shoulders must always bare a yoke. We learnt earlier (3:6) “Whoever throws off the yoke of Torah, they place upon him the yoke of government and yoke of sustenance.” The reverse is also true, as the Mishnah taught, that one who does bare the yoke of Torah and in his efforts demonstrates it is such, then other yokes will be removed. With this understanding, Torah quite literally liberates one for other worldly burdens.
Freedom from afflictions at first may be a little more difficult to understand. According to the Midrash Shmuel this cannot be understood literally, for he notes, the it is clear to all that the righteous too have their fair share of troubles. Instead, he explains that while they may experience these afflictions, they will not be subjugated by them. Their worldly perspective, fashioned by their persistent learning, result in their enduring such experiences with an acceptance and even good countenance.54 The Midrash Shmuel uses this to explain the beginning half of our Mishnah. It is usually, read and translated as follows:
R’ Yehoshua ben Levi said: every day a heavenly voice calls from Har Chorev and announces saying, “Woe to people because of their insult to Torah…”
According to the Midrash Shmuel the end of the above quote should be understood as meaning: the exclamation of “woe” called out by one suffering an affliction is a result of their insult to Torah, for had they been immersed in Torah, they would have endured the affliction in a very different way.
The Midrash, in covering the three types of freedom, also highlights the three types of slavery. The external or social (government/exile), personal (afflictions) and the more subtle internal (evil inclination). Pesach is closely tied to Shavuot and HaKadosh Baruch Hu made it clear that the liberation from was to bring them to Har Sinai and accept the Torah. During Zman Cheiruteinu, a period where we celebrate freedom, we must remember all these forms of slavery both the obvious and subtle, and the means with which we are to liberate ourselves.
53 In different Midrashim the opinions are brought in different names and therefore the names have not been included.
54 See the Midrash Shmuel for a fuller treatment of this concept and the world perspective of the righteous.
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