Thursday, May 18, 2017

Independence and Freedom

By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh

We are now in the time period between Pesach and Shavuot, which are connected through the Mitzvah of Sfirat HaOmer. In recent years, two other festive days have been added to this period of the Jewish calendar, Yom Haatzmaut [Israel's Independence Day] and Yom Yerushalayim. One who is "independent" is generally defined as one who has self-rule and is not under the control of others. However, this alone is insufficient for one to be considered truly free. Rav Kook, zt"l, points out that there can be a capable slave, who despite his slavery is self-motivated and carries himself with an air of freedom. Conversely, there can be a person who is unfettered by others, yet he is not truly free, either because his actions are decided based on what others consider good and proper, or because he is subjugated to his own desires and impulses which he is unable to overcome. True freedom is the ability of a person or nation to live his life based on his true self, and not merely upon societal norms.

This is the message behind Chazal's comment: "'Charut al haluchot - engraved on the tablets' (Shemot 32:16). Do not read "charut" [engraved] but rather "cheirut" [freedom], for only one who is involved with Torah is truly free (Avot 6:2). What is the connection between engraving and freedom? Unlike writing, in which ink is applied externally onto paper, engraving is in the very item itself. Therefore, only through studying Torah and engraving its lessons in our hearts do we become free men, since then our physical existence is in synch with our internal soul.

On Pesach we were redeemed from slavery and achieved national independence. This process, however, was not concluded until Shavuot when we received the Torah, which made us free men. In this way, Pesach and Shavuot form a single unit.

In our days, there are those who see Yom Ha'atzmaut as the crowning glory of the renewed existence of Bnei Yisrael. However, we cannot consider ourselves a free nation based on political independence alone. So long as we are eyeing foreign cultures and abandoning our essence, the redemption is incomplete, and we are not yet free men. The liberation of Jerusalem, nineteen years later, added the spiritual dimension which provides the internal strength of our nation.

The blessings in our parasha open with the condition, "Im bechukoti telechu" - "If you follow My laws" (Vayikra 26:3). Rashi (based on the Sifra) explains this to mean that you toil in My Torah. This requirement goes far beyond the mere performance of the mitzvot. The fulfillment of the blessings is dependent upon our living a comprehensive lifestyle based on the Torah which must be engraved in our hearts.

In parshat Acharei Mot we are commanded, "Do not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, and do not follow the ways of Canaan to where I will be bringing you; nor shall you follow any of their practices" (Vayikra 18:3). Rashi comments that the end of the verse does not merely prohibit sinning like them, as that is already stated in the first half of the verse. Rather, it refers to adopting their customs, such as theaters and stadiums.

"Practices" is not used in the sense of "laws", but rather in the sense of lifestyle, aspiration and environment. Theaters are the key ingredient of the recreational culture commonplace with the nations. The practices that we follow, however, and that are engraved in us, are expressed by the motto - that you toil in the Torah. "Do not follow their practices" is contrasted by "If you follow my laws."

The blessings conclude with the phrase "Vaolech etchem komemiut" - "I led you upright" (26:13). The Sifra comments on the word "komemiut" - "Like the double height of Adam." Adam's height was two hundred cubits. The Maharal explains that one hundred indicates perfection. Two hundred indicates double perfection, in both the physical and spiritual sense. We are thus promised that if the Torah is engraved in us, and our physical way of life matches our spiritual one, then our perfection will be in both realms. This is, perhaps, the meaning of our daily prayer, "lead us `komemiut' to our land." Rav Kook, zt"l, remarked in his siddur, "like the double height of Adam," since the body and soul together are a full height, physical and spiritual.

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