Illusions of Freedom

And Hashem spoke all of these things saying: (Sefer Shemot 20:1)


I. The purpose of the universe

This passage introduces the Asseret HaDibrot – the Decalogue. Hashem’s pronouncement of the Decalogue introduced His transmission of the Torah to Moshe and the Jewish people. The Sinai Revelation and the communication of the Torah fulfilled Moshe’s original prophecy. Hashem told Moshe in that prophecy that following their redemption from Egypt, Bnai Yisrael would serve Hashem at Sinai. Rashi adds that the nation was redeemed to receive the Torah.[1]


The Sinai Revelation also fulfilled the objective of creation. Our Sages comment that Hashem gave the universe existence on the condition that the Jewish people accept the Torah.[2] The meaning of this comment is that the universe has a purpose. Its existence is dependent upon the realization of its purpose. The Revelation and communication of the Torah to humanity – represented by the Jewish people – is fundamental to the universe’s purpose. Without the events of Sinai, the universe would be devoid of meaning and purpose. Hashem would have no reason to sustain its existence. Therefore, its existence was dependent upon Bnai Yisrael’s acceptance of the Torah. In short, Revelation and the conveyance of the Torah were fundamental to the development of the Jewish people. Also, these events were fundamental to the existence of the universe.


II. Torah is liberating

The above discussion outlines the role of the Torah in the development of our people and in the universe’s purpose. However, our Sages emphasize that the Torah is also essential to the development of the individual. They comment that the only free person is one involved in the study of Torah.[3] This comment is more than an empty platitude. It expresses their profound understanding of the make-up of human beings.


To understand the meaning of our Sages’ comments, let’s begin with a simple question. I have encountered many people who take issue with this comment. They argue that the Torah is restrictive. Torah study and observance of the mitzvot does not liberate them; it inhibits their freedom. This criticism of our Sages’ comment seems legitimate. The Torah includes 613 commandments. Some commandments create obligations – like praying daily. Other commandments are prohibitions – such as to not work on Shabbat. How can observance and study of a set of obligations and restrictions the path to liberation?


III. Defining freedom 

This objection is based upon two underlying assumptions. First, it assumes that freedom means the capacity to pursue one’s will. This is a reasonable working definition, but it acknowledges that freedom has inherent limitation. To appreciate this definition and identify freedom’s inherent limitation, let’s apply it. 


Consider an animal – perhaps, a lion – that has been captured from the wild. After its capture, it is placed in a cage. The lion tests its cage and seeks to regain its freedom. Eventually, the lion discovers a weakness in its containment and regains its freedom. Let us compare the lion’s degree of freedom when in captivity and when not in captivity. In captivity, the lion is not capable of pursuing its will. It is not free. When the lion escapes its containment, it may pursue its will. It is free of external restraints. However, it must be noted that when the lion achieves its freedom it remains driven by its will – its irresistible instincts.


This illustration demonstrates an important aspect of our definition of freedom. Freedom is not synonymous with choice. Freedom has limitation. Its freedom empowers the lion to pursue its will, but its will is irresistible. The lion is free but cannot make choices. 


IV. A second assumption

For our lion, freedom was achieved though removing externally imposed restraints. This did not provide the lion with the capacity to make choices, but it became capable of pursuing its will. Our Sages propose that true freedom is achieved only though the study of Torah. The objection to this assertion is that the Torah imposes restrictions and obligations. This is antithetical to freedom. The objection insists that we are like the lion. Our freedom is attainted by eliminating any imposed restrictions upon behavior. Let’s consider this more carefully.


Freedom is the capacity to pursue one’s will. It was simple to identify the will of our lion. The lion is a relatively simple creature. Its will is its instinctual drives. The objection to our Sages assumes that we are simple creatures and our will is easily identified. Human will is the desires and urges one senses and experiences. Remove external restraint and one is empowered to pursue these desires. One is free. 


And the L-rd created the human being in His image. In the image of the L-rd He created him – [as] male and female He created them. (Sefer Beresheit 1:27)


V. Composition of the human being

Is human will so easily identified? To identify human will, we must discuss the composition or nature of a human being. What is the fundamental identity of the human being?


The message of the above passage is that human beings are unique. We are endowed with the “image of the L-rd”. We need not delve into the exact meaning of this phrase; we need only to recognize that includes our spiritual and intellectual identity. The Torah reveals that our true fundamental identity is our Divine image – not our material instincts.



VI. Human will

This perspective on human identity impacts our understanding of human will. Human will is not as easily established as our lion’s. The lion is a purely instinctual creature. Its will is the drive of its instincts. A human being possesses instincts, but the Divine image is our more fundamental element. Human will is not the desires emerging from instinct; it is the spiritual drives of the Divine image. How does one attain the capacity to pursue these spiritual desires? The answer requires that we consider the factors that interfere with this pursuit.  


External restraints sometimes prevent our pursuit of spiritual objectives. More often our freedom is restricted by our competing agendas. Our other desires – expressions of our instincts – insistently demand our attention and distract or deter us from spiritual development. We are not like our lion. Its freedom was restricted by external constraints; ours is restricted by internal forces – our material nature.   


VII. Torah and freedom

We noted above that freedom and choice are not synonymous. The liberated lion has freedom but not choice. The removal of external restraints provides the lion freedom but not choice. It will is its immutable instincts. Choice is impossible. For a human being to achieve freedom, one must first attain the capacity to choose the path of spiritual existence. If one succeeds in eliminating external restraints, one must yet overcome the internal forces. Only through subduing these internal drives can one attain the capacity to choose the spiritual life. 


The meaning of our Sages’ comment now emerges. Hashem gave us the means to overcome our internal limits and attain the capacity to choose our path. The Torah and its mitzvot are designed to cultivate a moderate personality. Through moderating our material drives, we secure the capacity to make choices. We can select a path. Our spiritual self – our true self – is empowered to pursue its will. The study of Torah is the ultimate spiritual experience.[4] This engagement in spiritual experience is the greatest act of freedom.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 3:12.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 1:31.

[3] Mesechet Avot 6:2.

[4] This may seem a strange assertion. Isn’t prayer as spiritually meaningful as study? The Talmud in Mesechet Shabbat 10:a discusses this issue. It recounts that Rava encountered Rav Hamnuna engaged in extensive prayer. Rava reprimanded him for neglecting Torah study for the sake of extended prayer.