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LET FREEDOM RING

by Rabbi David Zauderer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Many Jews who have begun studying Torah and learning more about Jewish customs and rituals have expressed their hesitation to commit themselves to a more observant lifestyle because it takes away their freedom.

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Many Jews who have begun studying Torah and learning more about Jewish customs and rituals have expressed their hesitation to commit themselves to a more observant lifestyle because it takes away their freedom. In Ethics of Our Fathers (6:2) we are taught, "And it is stated, Ďthe tablets were the work of G-d, and the writing was the writing of G-d, engraved (charus) on the tablets.í Read not charus, engraved, but cheirus, freedomófor there is no free man except a person who engages in Torah study." In other words, what the Talmud is teaching us here, based on a nuance of the text describing the engraving of the word of G-d on the tablets, is that true freedom can only result from Torah study and mitzvah observance. How can we reconcile this Torah concept with the secular, conventional wisdom that all that Jewish observance "stuff" is so restricting and inhibits our freedom?

Letís analyze this ideal that everyone strives for called freedom. Is freedom merely the ability to do whatever I want to do? That definition will work if what I want to do is to become a lawyer or to sit in the front of the bus even though Iím black. But what if I want to have the freedom to yell "fire" in a crowded theater, or to sell narcotics to kids, or, even worse, the freedom to gather a large mob and get them into a frenzy to kill any Jew in sight? Obviously, that is taking it to the extreme, but the point is that freedom is not so ideal and virtuous when it conflicts with justice.

A much better working definition of this elusive ideal called freedom is the ability to express my true self. Now all thatís left to figure out is just what is my true self! Judaism believes in the duality of body and soul. The body is the matter and the soul is the form, giving the body direction and purpose. This duality is reflected in the tablets that were engraved with the word of G-d. The stone was the matter, and the words of Torah engraved into that stone gave the Tablets meaning and significance. Our souls, our true spiritual selves, yearn to grow and become more refined and closer to G-d, but are held back by the body, representing all that physical, emotional, and psychological baggage. The Torah is that guidebook and vehicle through which we can cast off those fetters that bind us to the body. By focusing on the spiritual, we cease to become slaves to our physical desires, thereby freeing up the real "us" to focus ourselves towards leading meaningful and fulfilling lives.

So the answer is, yes, the Torah is a "yoke"óbut yokes are good for us. We put a yoke on a bull to harness all of its energy for a productive cause. And thatís what the Torah and all the commandments do for us too.

Take the Sabbath, for instance. Some find the Sabbath a monotonous, deadly bore. They canít go anywhere or do anything. They are miserable. To others, the Sabbath is a delight, received with joy and happy anticipation. It is a day of rest and inner relaxation; a day that lets you put the rest of the week in proper perspective. For the Jewish soul, itís the ultimate freedom. Itís all a matter of perspective.

The Eastern poet Rabindranath Tagore moved intuitively toward this conclusion when he wrote, "I have on my table a violin string. It is free...But it is not free to do what a violin string is supposed to doóto produce music. So I take it, fix it in my violin, and tighten it until it is taut. Only then is it free to be a violin string." If we have freedom for, and not merely freedom from, the higher goals and attainments of the Torahís morality, then we can leave behind the depths of spiritual bankruptcy into a life replete with true freedom.

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Rabbi David Zauderer is a card-carrying member of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel.

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