We are living through momentous times. We are witnessing history. In the last few months popular uprisings have brought down one dictatorship after another and, more poignantly for us at this time on the Jewish calendar, the overthrowing of Hosni Mubarak, President of Egypt. What is our approach to all of this? How do we understand the turbulent world in which we live?
“The Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow.” The author of these words was Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Teitz, who lived in the 20th century and escaped from Eastern Europe to America in the years before the Holocaust. The conventional wisdom at that time was that Judaism would have no place in the New World, that the ancient teachings of the Torah may have been relevant in the primitive backwaters of Eastern Europe, but would have no place in the modern and sophisticated world of America. Rabbi Teitz passionately believed otherwise. He knew, as we do, that when G-d gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai 3 323 years ago it was given for all times and for all situations. With this vision Rabbi Teitz fled from pre-war Europe, and built a thriving Jewish community in America.
The world is constantly changing, presenting us with new circumstances and challenges. The Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow; the concepts and values of G-d’s wisdom as revealed to us in the Torah serve as the framework for understanding and relating to our lives and our world. The language of tomorrow means that the Torah has a relevant, current and fresh message for every society and every situation. G-d speaks to us with His wisdom and enables us to understand the world.
This Pesach, the statement that the Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow has a special resonance. We are celebrating our festival of freedom as the world is convulsed by new struggles for freedom, one of which is taking place in the territory that was ancient Egypt, where we first received the gift of freedom from G-d Himself through the mighty and awesome miracles of the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. As we sit around our Seder tables this year, the message of freedom has a particular significance: what does Judaism teach us about protecting freedom and understanding its importance for the world and our own personal lives?
This essay is longer than the usual Pesach message I distribute to the community at this time of year. It is an attempt to better understand the Torah’s plan for how to create a free society, one in which the human spirit can flourish. I hope that you will find it of interest and of benefit.
Gina and I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a joyous and kosher Pesach filled with inspiration. May Hashem bring to the world the ultimate freedom of the Final Redemption.
Freedom is part of the very heart and soul of the Torah. The Jewish people were born in the slavery of Egypt and emerged fully in our G-d-given freedom shortly thereafter. The very first words we as a nation heard from G-d were about these experiences; “I am the L-rd your G-d Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20: 2). The slavery in Egypt and the experience of freedom is central to Judaism, with a specific commandment to remember the Exodus every day, and an entire festival—Pesach—devoted to understanding and celebrating this freedom.
The Talmud points out that the verse describes the words of the Ten Commandments as being “engraved” on the Tablets that Moshe brought down from Mount Sinai. The Hebrew word for engraved is charut, which is the same letters as the Hebrew word cheirut, “freedom.” The message is clear: the engraved words of the Ten Commandments on the Tablets are the gateway to freedom. As the Talmud says, “There is no free person like someone who engages with Torah.”
At first glance, however, this statement of the Talmudic Sages would seem to be a contradiction in terms: the Torah imposes many laws, commandments and duties—how can it be the way to freedom? One can argue that to live a life of mitzvot is the right thing to do and that it is important, but how can we say that it is the gateway to freedom? The Talmud makes an even bolder claim, that only one who is involved with Torah is truly free. Not only is Torah a path to freedom, but it is the only true path to freedom. How can this be?
This essay is an attempt to answer these questions. With His Torah, G-d gave us the blueprint for a multifaceted agenda for freedom. The coming pages highlight four aspects of this blueprint, including a political program to control the abuses of government and tyranny; a social program of kindness and compassion to alleviate human suffering as much as possible; an individual program of action for moral and spiritual upliftment to allow for the full development of the human spirit; and a blueprint for Jewish destiny.
Freedom Agenda Part I: Blueprint for Control of Government Power
The Torah and the Talmud provide a comprehensive framework for protecting individuals from political oppression. Even though it was given more than 3 300 years ago, it is a system which is relevant and powerful to this day. This sophisticated and complex legal and political system was given by G-d for all times and all places, to nurture and protect freedom; it “speaks in the language of tomorrow.”
The Origins of Tyranny
Tyranny goes back to the beginning of history. The Torah (Genesis 11: 1-4) describes the endeavour to build the Tower of Babel as follows:
And the whole earth was of one language and of unified intent. And it came to pass as they journeyed from the East that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, “come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone and slime for mortar. And they said, “come, let us build a city and a tower whose top reaches to Heaven; and let us make a name for ourselves lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
Rav Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, interprets these verses as describing a totalitarian state. He says that the infamous Tower of Babel was actually a surveillance tower intended to observe the inhabitants and stop them from leaving the designated area of settlement, so as to prevent different communities from being set up in freedom outside the authority of the reigning tyrant, Nimrod. The Netziv explains that the phrase “unified intent” indicates a tyrannical society where uniformity of thought among the people was enforced by threat of death. This is alluded to by the reference to “burn them thoroughly,” which cannot be referring only to the method of making bricks because such information would be irrelevant. Abraham, the founding father of the Jewish People, stood alone against this tyranny, and had it not been for the miraculous intervention of G-d to save him from the crematorium of Nimrod, he would have perished. Thus, the Jewish People were born from the passion for freedom; Abraham was, arguably, the world’s first defender of freedom.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch also sees this episode as a prototype of tyranny. He sees the core of tyranny as a lack of appreciation for the sanctity of the individual and the authority of G-d. Tyranny is about crushing the needs and rights of the individual for the sake of the glory of the state or the tyrant. He explains the building of the tower as part of a tyrant’s lust for fame and that history is filled with similar examples. Rabbi Hirsch says further that the tyranny of Egypt was based on the same model as the tyranny here and that the Pyramids the Pharaohs built as monuments for their glory were no different than the building of the Tower of Babel.
Independent Courts and Freedom
The Torah sets out a framework of laws and principles that protect the freedom of the people from governmental abuse, and prevent the rule of tyranny and dictatorship from crushing liberty. At the heart of tyranny is governance by the whim of individuals who have the ability to abuse their power. One of the key protections against abuse of government power and tyranny is the rule of law applied by a strong and independent court system.
The foundation for a free society is a system of government whereby the executive authority is held accountable by independent courts and the rule of law. The Torah has established such a system and also deals with specific aspects of abuse. Torah law provides for the establishment of a highly developed and extensive system of courts and independent judges to ensure that everyone in society, including the king, is held accountable.
In fact, one of the first institutions to uphold freedom—a full court system—was established within weeks of the liberation from Egypt. Under Torah law there is a four-tiered judiciary. At the top of this extensive and powerful system is the Great Sanhedrin with its 71 judges. At the next level stand two Minor Sanhedrins of 23 judges each. These courts were based in Jerusalem and had jurisdiction over the entire Land of Israel. The Great Sanhedrin sat in the building of the Temple itself, and the other two were stationed on the Temple Mount, outside the Temple building.
The third level of courts is the provincial level. The country was divided into twelve provinces, corresponding to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Each province had a provincial Sanhedrin of 23 judges, which exercised jurisdiction over the province as a whole. At the fourth level are the metropolitan Sanhedrins. Each city had an obligation to appoint a metropolitan Sanhedrin of 23 judges. The provincial Sanhedrins did not have jurisdiction on national matters as the Minor Sanhedrins did, and the metropolitan Sanhedrins did not have jurisdiction over provincial matters as the provincial Sanhedrins did. The Great Sanhedrin alone had jurisdiction over all matters that had national or constitutional importance. To this day, every well-functioning Jewish community must have its own Beth Din, as we do here in South Africa.
The power of the courts over the political rulers is expressed in a number of ways: even the king can be sued as a litigant in a civil case, and can be criminally prosecuted for any infraction of the law. Furthermore, any executive order or legislative act of the monarchy that is in conflict with the dictates of the constitution and legal system of the law is automatically void. This applies to any order or act that may bring people into conflict with the law, whether directly or indirectly. And the courts – especially the Great Sanhedrin – were empowered to control abuse of power by political rulers.
Controlling Abuse of Power
Let us consider two important examples of the abuse of power: financial and military. Unfortunately, as we have seen, these have emerged as key areas of abuse. To draw an example from recent events, Hosni Mubarak and his family amassed a vast amount of wealth. This pattern of accumulating obscene personal wealth is typical behaviour of tyrants and dictators the world over, from Robert Mugabe to Muammar Qaddafi. Another central feature of tyrannies is the personal use of the military and direct control of when and how the country goes to war and who commands the army and controls its budget. The Torah focuses on these two areas of abuse, among others, when it provides the legal framework for limiting government power.
The Torah says that any king appointed is subject to certain strict standards. In fact, it makes no mention of his powers, only his obligations. Two specific areas, among others, relate to finances and the military. The Torah (Deuteronomy 17: 16-17) commands “He [the king] shall not have too many horses for himself… And he shall not greatly increase silver and gold for himself.”
The Talmud explains, as a general rule, that although the laws and principles of the Torah have eternal relevance and authority as established by G-d, nevertheless the Torah uses examples appropriate to the era and place in which it was given, in order to make it more accessible to people. Thus, the references in the verse to silver, gold and horses are to be understood as applicable to the abstract principles that emerge from them.
According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b), the verse “he shall not increase silver and gold for himself” prohibits the king from accumulating large personal wealth, which is implied by the clause “for himself” in the verse. Funds required for state needs, however, are not affected by this law.
This law seeks to reduce the likelihood of an abuse of power in the form of corruption. Any head of state comes into close contact with vast public funds, and the temptation to increase one’s wealth by stealing from these funds might manifest. A law that prohibits a political leader from accumulating enormous wealth, even by legitimate means, goes a long way to preventing corruption because it means that the Great Sanhedrin would have access to the financial affairs of the king in order to determine whether or not he had “greatly increased silver and gold for himself.”
Some commentators see this law as an attempt to cultivate the king’s good moral character as well. Rabbeinu Bechayay, for example, says that financial wealth can lead a king away from G-d because he then may come to depend on his money for security and success instead of turning to G-d. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, on the other hand, explores the connection between a character vice and bad governance, saying that experience has shown that three factors in particular have the potential not only to destroy the virtue of a leader but also to endanger his people: the passion for military glory and renown; women; and possessions. The third, according to Rabbi Hirsch, “is the most pernicious, and at the same time one that can never be satisfied.”
The Ibn Ezra approaches this law from a different angle, saying that it is aimed at reducing the tax burden. If a king is limited in the amount of personal wealth he is allowed to accumulate, he will not be tempted to raise taxes in order to increase his income from public funds. Indeed, unduly high taxes are a form of tyranny and oppression. The aim of the law, then, is to prevent the abuse of power not only in the form of corruption but also in the form of tyranny and oppression.
The Ibn Ezra demonstrates the disastrous consequences of heavy taxation by pointing out that King Solomon accumulated enormous wealth and imposed a heavy tax burden, which eventually led to civil war. When King Solomon’s son Rehoboam took over the kingship from his father, the people pleaded with him to lessen the heavy tax burden. Rehoboam refused, saying, “I will add to your yoke,” and a tax collector was stoned in protest. The incident sparked a full-scale rebellion and the kingdom split in two.
Transparency and Accountability
Torah law takes great care to ensure that public money in general, and welfare funds in particular, are managed with maximum transparency and accountability. The Code of Jewish Law, based on the Talmud, requires that measures be taken to allow the public to have faith in the collectors and distributors of public welfare funds. These laws seek to create an atmosphere of honesty and transparency within society. For instance, the Talmud (Bava Batra 8b) tells us that when collecting charity, public officials are not allowed to separate from one another, which may appear like—or even lead to—corrupt behaviour. They may, however, collect in the same courtyard because they are able to see one another. If one of them finds money in the street, although he is allowed to keep it according to the laws of lost objects, nevertheless he should put it into the charity box, and take it out only when he comes home. Likewise, if one of them lent someone a sum of money and the debtor pays him in the street, he should put the money into the charity box and only take it out when he comes home. The latter two measures are designed to prevent onlookers from thinking that he is pocketing welfare money.
There are also laws pertaining to charity collectors even after they have finished collecting. For instance, they should count only one coin at a time, lest people say they stole from the fund and deceived in the counting process to cover their tracks. They must change smaller coins into larger ones only with other people’s money, not with their own money, lest people say they didn’t give full value to the fund. For the same reason, if the managers of a soup kitchen have food left over and no poor to whom to distribute it, they may sell it to others but are not allowed to purchase it themselves.
Likewise, the Rama (Y.D. 257: 2), co-author of the Code of Jewish Law, stresses the importance of providing a full account of how every cent of welfare money was used by public officials. The Vilna Gaon in his commentary on this passage of the Code of Jewish Law, points to the precedent of transparency and accountability that Moses had set in the desert when he gave a full account of all the materials that had been collected towards the construction of the Tabernacle. During the times of the Temple, the priests who handled the donation money within the vicinity of the Temple treasury were not allowed to wear clothing with pockets, or even shoes, lest someone suspect them of hiding funds. The Mishnah cites the Torah verse (Numbers 32: 22) “You shall be [morally] clean before G-d and Israel” in explaining these laws which seek to create a transparent and accountable society.
Controlling Military Spending
As explained above, the Torah gives examples appropriate to the time in which it was given even though the principles apply in different forms throughout different ages. Thus, the example of horses represents the broader issue of military expenditure, which is relevant in the extreme cases of violent tyranny, as well as in the more nuanced situation of a dispute around military spending. The controversy of the South African government’s arms deal is a case in point.
According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b), horses that are genuinely needed for state purposes are permitted because the verse refers only to horses acquired “for himself.” Thus, the king may acquire as many horses as are necessary for military purposes, or even for government transportation needs, but no luxuries are allowed. Not even one unnecessary horse may be kept in government stables. For example, it is illegal for the king to purchase and maintain a horse that serves no purpose other than forming part of the royal entourage to add prestige to the throne. Such a horse, even though it is kept for the glory of the king, is deemed to be superfluous, and hence illegal.
The Talmud says that this law applies specifically to what it calls an “idle horse.” An “idle horse” is, obviously, one that does not serve any particular purpose and is therefore unnecessary. But how is necessity defined for the purposes of this law? Some authorities define it narrowly, saying that every horse has to be scrutinised and justified in terms of its utility, even when it comes to such important things as military preparedness. Others say that this law is primarily concerned with horses that are kept merely for the king’s honour and when it comes to other needs—such as the military—it is presumed that the horses are necessary.
The Talmud cites King Solomon as an example of a king who transgressed this law. The Bible (Kings 1: 5: 6) says of him: “Solomon had forty thousand stables of horses for his chariots and twelve thousand horsemen.” The Talmud (Tosefta Sanhedrin 4: 3) remarks that “they were idle,” which some say refers to the horses, as King Solomon had a lot more horses than horsemen; others say that “they were idle” refers to the horsemen because it was a time of peace and, consequently, he did not need so many. According to the latter explanation, it seems as if the law is applicable not only to horses but to any excesses of the king that cannot be justified in strict utilitarian terms. The verses immediately prior to the one describing Solomon’s large standing army describe the peace and prosperity of the times. These circumstances made Solomon’s amassing of horses and horsemen unjustifiable.
In his commentary on the verse “He shall not have too many horses for himself,” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that this injunction is referring specifically to a king amassing a large standing army. He says that in Biblical times, the “horse was the primary war-animal, such that in the reports of battles we find cavalry mentioned in the foreground.” Thus, to keep an excess number of horses is “synonymous with keeping a large military force.” The king’s military ambitions are to be curtailed because, as Rabbi Hirsch puts it, “the passion for military glory and renown” has, among other things, “been the rocks on which the virtue of rulers has come to grief and on which the happiness of their people has been shattered.”
Amassing a large standing army increases the prospects for abuse of power, both in the form of despotism and in the form of corruption. A large army can be used as a powerful instrument of tyranny and oppression. Furthermore, it increases the likelihood of an unnecessary war, which is possibly the worst form of tyranny and oppression; history has shown how many people have died or have been wounded from unnecessary wars. Unnecessarily large armies are also a wasteful, and hence corrupt, use of public funds. To prevent this, the Great Sanhedrin was charged with the responsibility of keeping the defence budget to an absolute minimum.
Other commentators see in the prohibition of amassing horses an attempt at moral and spiritual improvement of the king. For example, in his commentary on the verse “He shall not have too many horses for himself,” the Ramban says that excessive horses are a sign of a weakening of the king’s faith in G-d. Such overabundance indicates that the king seeks security primarily from his military might and not from G-d. Rabbeinu Bechayay says that a preoccupation with military prowess reflects inversion of priorities, as it distracts the king from his primary purpose which is to further observance of and respect for G-d’s law and morality among the citizenry. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch agrees and points out that, according to the Talmud, the commandment to appoint a king was effective only after the Land of Israel was conquered, which indicates that the king was never meant to be a military leader but rather a spiritual leader. Renowned Talmudic scholar Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel says that an excess of royal horses could lead to arrogance, which in turn leads to disloyalty to G-d and His law.
The Torah also deals with the very important question of how a king decides if and when to go to war. This too is relevant both to the extreme case of a dictator going to war on a whim, as well as the modern-day controversies of the legitimacy of democratically elected American presidents going to war in Iraq, and now in Libya.
The Great Sanhedrin was given ultimate control over when the king may embark on expansionist wars, and thus played a major role in controlling the king’s military ambitions so that the king’s desire for conquest and glory would not oppose the best interests of his people. To leave such a decision to the discretion of the king alone would leave citizens open to abuse at the hands of their leaders. The Sanhedrin was given the authority to impose corporal punishment on a recalcitrant king who transgressed this commandment as well as the responsibility of keeping the defence budget to an absolute minimum, according to the security needs of the country.
The Great Sanhedrin controlled not only how much could be spent on the military, but whether the king may wage a war. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 2a, 16a) distinguishes between two types of war: a “mitzvah” (commanded) war and an optional war. According to Rashi, a mitzvah war is like those that Joshua waged, whose purpose was to conquer the Land of Israel as defined by its Biblical borders. The Rambam adds that any war of self-defence is also included in the category of a mitzvah war. In the case of a mitzvah war, the king is fulfilling a commandment of Torah law, and requires no approval of the Great Sanhedrin. Expansionist wars and wars conducted to increase the glory and reputation of the king, however, are classified as optional wars, as are offensive wars aimed at weakening potential enemies not posing a direct and immediate threat. These require the permission of the Great Sanhedrin.
The Great Sanhedrin is given control over whether to wage an optional war because lives will inevitably be lost. Consequently, a court decision is required in the same way that it is required when imposing the death penalty on any accused criminal (Sefer Margaliyot Hayam on Sanhedrin). In fact, when it comes to the question of war, a court decision is even more necessary than for an ordinary criminal matter involving capital punishment because innocent lives will be lost and the repercussions will be felt in the country for generations. Therefore, although an ordinary capital trial is conducted with a regular Sanhedrin of 23 judges, when it comes to embarking on a military campaign, the decision must rest with the highest judicial authority—the Great Sanhedrin, comprised of 71 judges.
Decisions that might endanger people’s lives cannot be made solely by a political leader, who may be influenced by personal ambition or greed. From the perspective of Torah law, only the highest judicial authority, with its legal and moral expertise and impartiality, may make such decisions. Even with the consent of the Great Sanhedrin, when it comes to an optional war, the king cannot conscript at will. For an optional war there are many categories of exemptions, such as one who has built a house and has not yet lived in it, one who is within his first year of marriage, and anyone who is afraid of battle is exempt from being conscripted into an optional war.
Even the decision to embark on a mitzvah war, which does not require the Great Sanhedrin’s consent, is not made by the king. A mitzvah war is required by Torah law; it is not the prerogative of the king but a dictate of Torah law which the king merely executes as a loyal servant. The Great Sanhedrin, as the ultimate interpreter and guardian of the law, presumably determines whether a particular military campaign is classified as a mitzvah or an optional war. Such a classification is based on Torah law, requires legal analysis and, consequently, rests with the judiciary in the form of the Great Sanhedrin.
Impeachment and Accountability
The king can be impeached by the Great Sanhedrin and removed from office. There are two kinds of impeachment processes: direct and indirect. Direct impeachment is a process that deals directly with the king’s removal from office. In fact, this process could be used for the removal of any person in a position of authority, on grounds of “improper conduct.” One aspect of improper conduct refers to a serious transgression of Torah law, which must involve a sin that carries corporal punishment. Another aspect of improper conduct refers to a lack of ability to fulfil the tasks and responsibilities that accompany the particular position. When it comes to the impeachment of the king, the Great Sanhedrin would assess the notion of improper conduct because, being a legal question, it falls to the judiciary to decide, and having national significance it must be dealt with by the highest court in the land.
The principle of indirect impeachment concerns the application of criminal law to the monarchy. The Talmud debates the status of someone in another position of authority (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 2: 1)—for example, a High Priest—that has been given corporal punishment for wrongdoing. Can such a person return to his position after receiving his punishment and undertaking never to repeat his wrongdoing? According to the Talmud, in principle nothing stands in the way of reinstatement, but certain policy considerations must be taken into account. The main concern is that once the convicted official returns to his post, he may seek revenge from the judicial officers who were involved in his sentencing. Consequently, according to the Talmud, a High Priest may return to his duties because he poses no threat to the judiciary, whereas a political ruler may not. This means that criminal proceedings involving the king overlap as impeachment proceedings. Once found guilty of a corporal offence in a court of law and punished, the king is removed from office.
Freedom Agenda Part II: Blueprint for a Compassionate Society
The Torah program for freedom goes further than political freedom, for although the rule of law and strong courts are necessary, they are not sufficient conditions for creating a truly free society. The law provides an orderly and predictable framework within which people can deal with one another and thrive in freedom. However, Judaism has always maintained that structure and order are not sufficient. Rabbi Mordechai Gifter points to the insufficiencies of a legal system which fulfils only these basic functions:
The Law itself can become cold and sometimes even cruel if it is designed only to meet the requisites of an ordered society. Indeed, there is a law even among barbarians. The cruelty and tyranny of the dictator is also framed in the order of law. One is reminded of the words of the Psalmist who, in speaking of the tyrant, describes him as being one “who frames violence by statute” (Psalms 94: 20).
Torah is the blueprint for a righteous and compassionate society. Freedom cannot be achieved without a real program of compassion and kindness designed to alleviate suffering and protect the most vulnerable. Since its inception at Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago, Torah law has always prided itself on the wisdom, insight and righteousness of its laws:
You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and insight in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes and who shall say, “Surely a wise and insightful people is this great nation….” And which is a great nation that has righteous statutes and laws, such as this entire Torah that I place before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4: 6, 8)
This passage from the Torah takes pride in what it describes as Jewish law’s wisdom, insight and righteousness. As it states, these characteristics are evident to objective outsiders, who are able to recognise them as praiseworthy. The wisdom and insight of Torah law refer, inter alia, to its intellectual depth and sophistication, to its capacity to deal with any situation in accordance with carefully analysed legal principles. According to the above passage, righteousness is a central tenet and feature of Torah law.
Torah law has always been committed to righteousness as the highest calling of its legal system, and has made many significant contributions to what well-known and respected historian Paul Johnson calls the “basic moral furniture of the human mind”:
All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place. (A History of the Jews, p. 585)
Johnson errs in ascribing these insights to the Jews themselves; Torah law’s righteousness should be ascribed to its Divine authorship as the passage in Deuteronomy says: “that I place before you this day.”
“You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt”
The connection between freedom and compassion is rooted in the Egypt experience. Thus, when the Torah commands kindness towards the “stranger” it gives as the rationale, “You were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” According to the interpretation of the Ramban, this says to a would-be oppressor: “You were strangers in the land of Egypt”—you were totally helpless to defend yourselves against the Egyptians, and yet G-d came to your defence because you could not defend yourselves. Likewise, G-d will come to the defence of any ‘stranger’ you oppress.” A “stranger” is someone who does not have a support system in society. Strangers are particularly vulnerable because there is no one to defend them.
The Midrash says, “The Egyptian bondage was of great value for us, since it served to implant within us the quality of kindness and mercy.” Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that “the Egyptian experience may therefore be regarded as the fountainhead and moral inspiration for the teaching of compassion which is so pervasive in Jewish Law.” The particular focus of this “moral inspiration for the teaching of compassion” is on “the most defenceless elements in society…The stranger, in particular,” continues Rabbi Soloveitchik, “personifies the helpless one who has no family or friends to intercede on his behalf.” To oppress the “stranger” would thus be a betrayal of the lessons of Jewish law and history.
The mitzvah to be kind to the stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” is significant not only because it mandates compassion towards and protection of the underdog. It is, says the Netziv, also about preventing the suppression of human potential. When vulnerable people are subjected to abuse, their potential is prevented from coming to the fore. According to the Netziv the verse should be understood as follows: you know how downtrodden you were and yet you rose up from the oppression to receive G-d’s law and become a great nation. Therefore, you must never underestimate the human potential of the “stranger”; never forget that he or she could also be destined for greatness and, hence, never be responsible for the suppression of another’s potential. Rather, you must open your heart to the stranger with love, so that you can enable him to flourish and realise his potential. Thus, Torah law’s concern for the “stranger” is significant in that it is a commitment to the sanctity, importance and potential greatness of the human being, created in G-d’s image.
We are, therefore, never to oppress the stranger, because in doing so we would be crushing potential human greatness. To deny human greatness is an insult to G-d Himself, Who created man b’tzelem Elokim, “in G-d’s image.” To deny human potential is also a denial of the veracity of a significant verse from the book of Psalms (118: 22): “The stone that the builders despised has become the cornerstone.” King David, the author of the above words, was writing about himself. Samuel the Prophet had been told by G-d to go to the house of Jesse to anoint the new king from among Jesse’s sons, but he was not told which son would be king. When Samuel saw David’s brother Eliav he immediately assumed that he was to be the new king. G-d corrected Samuel with words that are true for all people: “Do not look at his appearance or at his tall stature, for I have rejected him. For it is not as man sees; man sees what his eyes behold, but G-d sees into the heart” (Samuel 1: 16: 7) Nobody expected David to be king—he was only a shepherd. He was the “stone that the builders despised,” yet eventually he became the “cornerstone.”
“The Stranger, the Orphan and the Widow”
The Talmud notes that in the Five Books of Moses we find 36 separate occasions where the Torah commands us not to abuse, or mandates to be kind towards, the stranger. In purely quantitative terms, this exceeds any other law mentioned in the Torah, including the commandment to love G-d, to observe the Sabbath and to refrain from theft.
The significance of these laws goes even further than mere quantity, however. The thematic centrality of protecting the vulnerable, and society’s accountability for this protection, are emphasised by the Prophets throughout Jewish history, who continually criticised the people for ignoring the plight of the vulnerable segment of the population. Their writings are included in the Bible, reflecting their important influence on Torah law and thought. Very often, the Prophets referred to the stranger, the widow and the orphan as paradigmatic examples of the powerless. All members of society are held accountable for the injustices perpetrated against the weak, such as the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Thus, Isaiah (1: 17) exhorts society: “Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow.” Likewise Jeremiah (22: 3) preaches: “Thus said G-d: Administer justice and righteousness, and save the robbed from the hand of the oppressor; do not taunt and do not cheat the stranger, the orphan and the widow; and do not spill innocent blood in this place.”
Beyond the fact that the Prophets consider the stranger, the widow and the orphan not only specific categories of vulnerable people but also symbols of the powerless and the oppressed, these messengers of G-d also emphasise that society will be judged according to their treatment of the defenceless:
I will draw near to you for the judgment, and I will be a swift witness … against those who extort the wage of the worker, the widow and the orphan; and against those who wrong the stranger and do not fear Me, says the L-rd of Hosts (Malachi 3: 5).
Defending the oppressed is part of G-d’s identity as described by the Bible. G-d sees “the tears of the oppressed with none to comfort them, and their oppressors have the power” (Ecclesiastes 4: 1). This concept of G-d taking personal responsibility to protect the vulnerable members of society finds an echo in the passage dealing with the status of the widow and the orphan, where G-d promises “I will surely hear [their] cry” (Exodus 22: 22). An attack on a widow or an orphan is regarded as an attack on G-d Himself because He is their Protector, He is the “Father of orphans and Defender of widows” (Psalms 68: 6). This might be why the Talmud (Mechilta 181) compares such an attack to a form of pagan idolatry; both involve a rejection of G-d.
On a practical level, the Torah commands “You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan” (Exodus 22: 20-21). Some Torah legal authorities take the view that the verse applies specifically to orphans and widows and does not constituted a general category. Others see these two groups of people as examples of a broader category of vulnerable people.
When it comes to defining the “stranger,” some commentators say that it refers to converts, while others say that it refers to a non-Jew living in a predominantly Jewish society. Still others argue for an even broader definition and say that sensitivity to the “stranger” should be seen in the broader context of protecting “outsiders,” people who come from elsewhere and are unfamiliar with a certain place or society. Such people should not be alienated but rather should be put at ease and made to feel at home in their strange surroundings.
Torah law has a number of practical measures in place to protect the above categories of people. First, their feelings and sense of dignity are given extra protection by Torah law. Apart from the general commandment of “love your neighbour as yourself,” there is a special injunction to demonstrate extra love towards the stranger, in order, among other things, to counteract his or her feelings of alienation.
Similarly, the general prohibition against verbally abusing one’s fellow applies with greater force to the categories of vulnerable people. This means that Torah law regards verbal abuse directed at the vulnerable as a more severe sin than verbal abuse directed at the rest of the population. Hence, the Rambam writes that urgent steps must be taken to treat widows and orphans with more honour, dignity and gentleness than is due the average person.
Protecting Financial Interests
Torah law protects, as far as possible, the financial interests of these vulnerable people. The moral value of protecting them financially finds application in the intricacies of Torah civil law. For example, in the case of widows and orphans, a creditor cannot rely on a confirmed note of credit alone as he would with other debtors. In order to collect from a widow or orphan debtor, he must also take a special oath in which he swears that the widow or the orphan owes him the money. Furthermore, a creditor may not take a pledge from a widow no matter what her financial position.
Judges are given explicit instructions by Torah law to assist vulnerable people. For example, in the case of a widow or orphan, the court is instructed to pursue their best interests in terms of claiming on their behalf. Under normal circumstances, a judge cannot make a claim on behalf of one of the litigants if they did not make it themselves. The general approach and ethos of the courts is, perhaps, most influenced by the Torah instruction, “Do not pervert the justice of a stranger and orphan” (Deuteronomy 22: 17) and the warning, “Accursed be the one who perverts the justice of a stranger, an orphan and a widow” (Deuteronomy 27: 19). These serve as extra protection for people who have no support systems that can come to their defence. A court may never pervert justice even against the powerful, but in the case of the powerless the infraction of the law is even more severe. It is important to clarify, however, that the protection of the vulnerable must be done only with adherence to the law; the law cannot be broken under any circumstance, even to protect the weak.
Many of the welfare laws make reference not only to the poor but also to the classic categories of the vulnerable in order to provide them with extra protection. For example, when instructing the farmers regarding certain portions of the harvest being left aside for the poor, the Torah states:
And when you reap your harvest in your field and you forget a bundle in the field, you shall not return to take it; it shall be for the stranger, the orphan and the widow in order that the L-rd your G-d will bless your handiwork. … And you shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and therefore I command you to do this thing (Deuteronomy 24: 19-22).
The Torah mentions specifically the vulnerable when it comes to ensuring that everyone is able to participate in the celebration of the Festivals:
And you shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d; you and your son and daughter, your manservant and maidservant, and the Levite in your cities, and the stranger, the orphan and the widow in your midst… And you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt and observe and protect these statutes (Deuteronomy 16: 11-12).
The Rambam writes strongly against a Festival that becomes a celebration of self:
And when a person eats and drinks, he is obligated to feed the stranger, orphan and widow together with the downtrodden poor. But one who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and wife and does not provide likewise for the poor and the bitter of spirit—such joy is not a celebration of G-d’s commandments but rather a celebration of his stomach … and is disgraceful (Rambam Laws of Yom Tov 6: 18).
Special welfare provisions are made for orphans in particular. An orphan is defined as a child who has lost either parent and is unable to look after him- or herself from a financial, emotional or educational point of view. One of the most praiseworthy moral acts is that of raising an orphan in one’s home. The Talmud (Ketubot 67b) rules that individuals or institutions distributing welfare must ensure that an orphan is able to get married: “When an orphan wishes to get married, a house must be rented, bedding and other household furniture must be provided, and then he must be assisted in the actual process of finding and marrying a partner.” Because these are responsibilities and burdens usually shouldered by parents, the law steps into the breach to protect the vulnerable. These provisions concerning marriage apply to all poor people, but the Talmud emphasises the plight of the orphans because they are even more vulnerable than others. In another context, the Rambam makes specific mention of the importance of treating domestic employees with compassion.
Two of the Most Important Mitzvot
Two of the most important mitzvot in the Torah are chesed, acts of loving kindness, and tzedaka, giving money to those in need. The Talmud notes that chesed is so important, as evidenced by the fact that the Torah begins with kindness and ends with kindness: G-d made clothes for Adam and Eve, as recorded at the beginning of the Torah, and He buried Moshe, as recorded at the end of the Torah. G-d’s compassion and kindness serve as our guide and inspiration. The Torah (Deuteronomy 28: 9) says “You shall walk in His ways,” which the Talmud explains is a commandment to emulate G-d: “In the same way that He is compassionate so should you be, in the same way that He is gracious; so should you be.” The Talmud also gives specific actions to be emulated: G-d clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts the mourners, buries the dead and, therefore, so should we do all these deeds of loving kindness.
Tzedaka has a powerful impact on the world. The Vilna Gaon made the bold claim that if everyone would give their particular required amount, it would be possible to alleviate all poverty and need in society. The substantial, G-d-given rewards for this mitzvah are set out very clearly in the Code of Jewish Law (Y.D. 247: 2-4):
No one ever becomes poor from [giving] tzedaka, and no bad thing or damage comes as result of it, as it states (Isaiah 32: 17), “The product of tzedaka shall be peace.” Whoever has compassion on the poor, the Holy One Blessed is He has compassion on him. [The Rama adds]: A person should recognise that he requests sustenance from the Holy One Blessed is He, and in the same way that he requests from the Holy One Blessed is He to take heed of his plea so should he take heed of the pleas of the poor…Tzedaka sets aside all harsh decrees, and in a famine it saves from death … and it brings wealth. And it is forbidden to test G-d except in this matter [that is, that it brings wealth]..
Much of this is unusual. Normally the world operates in accordance with the Talmudic principle that reward for doing the mitzvot is primarily a matter for the next world, not this one. Tzedaka is an exception, ensuring reward in both worlds. When it comes to tzedaka we are even allowed to test G-d whether He will fulfil His promise of financial reward.
The Halalcha requires one to give at least ten percent (and up to twenty percent) of disposable income to tzedaka. There are many nuanced rules as to how this is to be calculated, taking careful account of the unique circumstances of every individual. Generosity is not something that can be based on gut instinct. Judaism teaches that less than ten percent is miserly, and the requisite ten percent is considered merely average. Giving twenty percent of one’s income is regarded as real generosity. Very wealthy people are allowed to give more than that, because doing so doesn’t risk impoverishing them.
There is much instructive detail in the commentary of various authorities on how to calculate the ten percent. For example, it is generally held that the ten percent is calculated after tax, and not on pre-tax income. The commentators also deal with the problem of someone who cannot afford to give even the ten percent. Another area that requires direction from the Halacha is how to allocate one’s tzedaka money; how much should be given, to whom, and to what causes. The mitzvah of tzedaka needs to be carefully thought out using detailed halachic guidelines and not be left to postulation. Judaism is the science of morality and truth, and science requires precision. A competent halachic expert needs to be consulted on these issues.
The Talmud refers to G-d and the Five Books of Moses as Rachmana, “the Merciful One.” This indicates that it considers compassion as an essential and defining value of G-d and His law. In fact, the Talmud (Yevamot 79a) maintains that one of the goals of Torah law is to cultivate compassionate people.
The Torah action plan for kindness and compassion is vital to building a world for all people because being a stranger and being vulnerable is bound up with the human condition, as world-renown historian Paul Johnson (A History of the Jews p. 586) writes:
They [the Jewish people] were also exemplars and epitomizers of the human condition. They seemed to present all the inescapable dilemmas of man in a heightened and clarified form. They were the quintessential “stranger and sojourners.” But are we not all such on this planet, of which we each possess a mere leasehold of threescore and ten? The Jews were the emblem of homeless and vulnerable humanity. But is not the whole earth no more than a temporary transit camp?
Freedom which comes from kindness is not only for the recipient but for the giver as well. We begin the Haggadah with an invitation to all needy people to join our Pesach meal. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik says that we do this to celebrate our own freedom; slaves cannot give charity and provide for the needs of others. To act with kindness is the ultimate freedom, and on Seder night we demonstrate how free we are.
Freedom Agenda Part III: Torah Blueprint for Moral and Spiritual Upliftment
The freedom agenda of the Torah that has been presented so far, deals with macro-societal issues such as government and poverty. What about personal freedom of the individual? From a Torah perspective the power of freedom goes to the heart of whom we are. Judaism teaches that at the essence of every human being is the force of G-d-given freedom.
Hashem gave each one of us the freedom to choose and to make decisions in life. This, says the Rambam, is the defining unique characteristic of what it means to be human. Animals have not been blessed by G-d with free choice. They make decisions – but only within the restricted framework of instinctual behaviour. Human beings have the freedom and power to override instincts and can make moral choices between good and evil. Animals cannot. That is what it means to be created in the “image of G-d” – blessed with Divine power and freedom to choose and to act and be a dynamic creative being who can change the course of his or her life. And it is this deep inner freedom that lays the foundations for the entire enterprise of the Torah. Without free choice, says the Rambam, Torah has no meaning because it is predicated upon mitzvot – Hashem commandments to us which only make sense in the context of our ability to freely choose to obey or not. Because we are free, therefore we must take responsibility for our choices and are held accountable by G-d for whether we chose good or bad.
The Torah imposes many commandments, duties and obligations on us, all of which limit and constrain us in one way or another, be it restricting what we can eat or say; having to pray at specific times; giving charity or any of the myriad practicalities of Judaism’s way of life. In the above sections we have seen how Torah is a force of freedom in the areas of government and society – but how do we understand it on a personal level? How does the Torah make us more free in our own individual lives. The Talmud makes an even bolder claim, that only one who is involved with Torah is truly free. Not only is Torah a path to freedom, but it is the only true path to freedom. How can this be?
Physical and Spiritual Laws of Nature
To answer these questions let us consider a simple example of physical health. What is freedom when it comes to diet and exercise? On a superficial level you could say that real freedom is eating whatever you like, whenever you like in as much quantities as you like; and not ever exercising. Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly is a very restrictive way of life that constrains our choices and imposes a certain degree of hardships and sacrifices. And yet which is the better way to live? Which is the freer way to live? Ironically, only through the constraints of good diet and regular exercise is the person truly liberated from the detrimental constricting effects of ill-health. There is no such thing as a vacuum. You cannot live without constraints and restrictions. We all have to choose either the severe limitations of lack of energy and even sickness that comes from over-eating and not exercising, or choose to live with the restrictions and disciplines of healthy living. The obligations of healthy living are actually and paradoxically the path to freedom because they liberate the true strength and vitality of the body, which was created by G-d to function in terms of certain basic laws of natural eating and exercise.
In the same way that G-d created the laws of the physical universe in such a way that when we live in sync and harmony with those laws we actually liberate the real power and energy within our bodies, so too G-d created the laws of the moral and spiritual universe in such a way that when we live in harmony with those we actually liberate the real power and energy within our souls.
What are these laws? The Talmud says that “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.” He is the designer and creator of our world and He used the Torah as the blueprint for the moral and spiritual laws of the world. G-d revealed to us these moral and spiritual laws when He gave us His Torah at Mount Sinai 3323 years ago. When we live by these laws we liberate ourselves. We live with a special energy and inspiration that feels good and right in the same way that being fit and healthy fills us with a deep sense of satisfaction, well-being, energy and strength.
The Torah gives us the clarity of values, as well the willpower to live by those values. There are many factors that obscure the clarity of our moral vision and weigh down our resolve to act. Freedom is about liberating ourselves from the cloud of confusion and strengthening our determination and inspiration to do good in the world by living in accordance with the spiritual and moral laws of the universe. Torah is the gateway to this liberation. It provides us with G-d-given clarity of purpose and values to guide us on the right path of life, and it even strengthens our resolve in giving effect to this vision.
The Torah contains the blueprint for moral and spiritual laws of every facet of existence. Judaism has the most awesome system of intellectual depth, whilst at the same time the most comprehensive program of practical action. Its genius lies in its combination of brilliant ideas and real action to implement these ideas. Judaism deals with every part of a human being: physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual. The wide-ranging 613 mitzvot cover every aspect of life, directing us how to live as individuals, as part of a marriage and a family, and as part of society; how to pray, how to learn; how to raise children, how to be humble and develop good character; how to govern a country; how to grow crops and look after animals; how to earn money ethically; how to set up courts and administer justice; how to help the poor; how to speak kindly; how to be a good employer and employee; and even how and what to eat. All of the Torah’s many detailed principles and instructions form the basis of the moral and spiritual laws of existence. As stated earlier, “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.”
Freedom and Happiness
Because the Torah’s blueprint for action guides us how to live in line with the moral and spiritual laws of the world, it brings a person to a state of inner peace and joy, and unleashes the synergistic power of holistic integrated living. Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg explains that shira, the Hebrew word for song, is related to the word yashar, which means straight, balanced, having integrity and being upright. The Torah is called “Sefer Ha Yashar” – the book of “yashar”, and it brings together every aspect of our lives in beautiful harmony. By contrast, so much of modern life is about the separation and alienation of physical from spiritual, of parents from children, of husbands from wives, of work from leisure and from family life, and of people from each other, with the resultant break-up of families, communities and the disintegration of value-based living. Judaism, on the other hand, is a model for the deep joy of holistic, balanced and integrated living in line with the Divine blueprint.
When people live out of sync with and are distant from the Torah blueprint for life, they are actually in a state of tension and conflict with the moral and spiritual laws of the universe as created by G-d to underpin every part of existence. The Vilna Gaon compares the pursuit of materialism for its own sake to drinking salt water when one is thirsty; it just makes one more thirsty. The physical world on its own is paradoxically addictive and unsatisfying at the same time. As the world drifts away from its Divine foundations, so do addictions – alcohol, drugs, and other forms – increase. True Torah living provides freedom from the vicious cycle of drinking the salty water of pure materialism. Torah guides us on how to enjoy the pleasures and delights of the physical world in a way which is in sync with G-d’s creational principles. Judaism does not preach a life of abstinence. It shows how everything can fit together in an harmonious Divine plan for inspired and energetic and holy living. Taking selfishly, ironically, leaves an emotional and spiritual vacuum. We all need physical things to live in the world, but they should be there for a higher purpose and the loftier meaning of living a good, moral and spiritual life in accordance with the eternal values of G-d’s Torah.
Freedom through the Power of Purpose
This leads to the next dimension of freedom – and that is the power of meaning and purpose. Freedom is infused with the energy and power of purpose and order. If human life is meaningless then it cannot be free because it is dragged down by emptiness and darkness. Torah gives us the freedom that comes from having a sense of purpose. We all long for inspiration in a world so often filled with cynical boredom and emptiness. Many people look at life as meaningless, lacking a lofty purpose, and making human existence pathetic and empty. Judaism teaches that every individual human being is a whole world of importance, and that every action we do is significant.
G-d wants us to do good and records everything we do to hold us accountable for how we live our lives. He listens to prayers and hopes, and dispenses successes and failures, blessings and hardships for every part of our lives. We may think that as we go about making a living, raising our children, living day-to-day, that these are ordinary, mundane things. Judaism teaches that they are not. G-d Himself, the King of all Kings, is interested and involved in our lives and that is the greatest compliment of all.
G-d said, “And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6). What is holiness? We hear the word bandied about so often, but what does it really mean? It is about seeing human life as special and sacred, and seeing that we are not merely a random accumulation of molecules, but rather that we have a soul from G-d and that how we live is important and significant. Judaism teaches that everything we do and everything we say and think is important to Hashem. Everything in this world can be elevated and invested with meaning and significance. Holiness is about living in this world in an inspired way so that everything that we do becomes so very important and special.
For example, physically the time of Shabbos and Yom Tov appears the same as any day of the week. But for us Friday night isn’t just another night of the week, and Saturday isn’t just another day – it is Shabbos. That is holiness. A piece of meat may look like an ordinary piece of meat, but for us it is either kosher or non-kosher – a reality of great significance. That is holiness. An act of kindness may just look like a simple social nicety but for us it is a chesed, an act of loving kindness, one of the most important mitzvot we have.
On Seder night we twice wash our hands with a cup, once at the beginning before eating the vegetables dipped in salt water and a second time before eating the matza. The mitzvah to wash hands with a cup is not limited to Seder night. According to the Halachah, we wash our hands when we wake up in the morning, and also before we eat bread. We say the blessing of “al netilat yadayim”. What do the words nitilat yadiym mean? According to one of our commentators they mean to lift up our hands – because when we wash our hands before we eat bread we elevate our hands. We raise our whole interaction with food to a higher level, saying that it is not merely engaging in a physical act but in something that has the potential for holiness. We become elevated and special which is what the concept of holiness is all about.
In the morning when we awake we also elevate our hands through the mitzvah of washing them. Our hands are the means by which we perform the deeds and actions of this world. And when we wash them we are saying that we are dedicating ourselves to elevated living since our commentators explain that when we awake in the morning we are like new creatures, who are given life again. Every morning the very fact that we wake up is a new gift of life from G-d himself. And we acknowledge that gift by saying “Mode Ani…”: “I Thank you G-d, living and eternal King, for having given me back my soul with compassion; your faithfulness is great.” Every single morning this is the first thing we say when we open our eyes. And when we wash our hands we say that we are hereby dedicating our lives to elevated living, to living on a special plane of significance and meaning and importance.
This washing of our hands is compared to the washing of the hands of the Kohanim, the Priests, as they entered the Sanctuary to serve G-d. So too, are we commanded to look at the whole world as one giant sanctuary, a Beit HaMikdash, a Holy Temple for the service of G-d. The service of G-d is not only for the shul. The shul is a place of inspiration – encouraging us to be good Jews in all aspect of our lives. As we wash our hands on the Seder night we feel our calling to elevated living. That is why it is also a night of freedom – freedom which comes from the power of purpose and meaning, of living in accordance with G-d’s blueprint for life: His Torah.
And this is the real secret of freedom, which we celebrate on Pesach. Judaism offers us freedom from the tyranny of materialism, and the emptiness of atheism, and the meaninglessness of a life without deep purpose. It offers us freedom from disconnectedness and the amorality of the latest fashionable behaviour. And it offers a way of life that infuses everything we do with holiness and spirituality and inspiration.
Freedom from Death
Judaism uplifts everything we do. It enables us to transcend an existence of scrambling in the dust as mortal, frail human beings, trapped in a physical world which is temporary, transient, and therefore ultimately meaningless. If we merely look at the world as a physical reality, then human existence is indeed pathetic; as human beings we are then only a random accumulation of molecules fighting for survival as we scrounge around among other molecules, and in the end face oblivion through death, the scattering of those molecules, a complete end to life.
As Jews, however, we have always been taught by G-d that the essence of human life is the immortal soul and that everything we do – whether good or bad – has eternal significance. The Torah teaches that human beings are not just physical or even emotional creatures. The most important dimension of human greatness is the neshoma – the soul. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that the human being is not a body who happens to have a soul; it is actually a soul that has a body—and we have to view ourselves as such. And the soul is immortal. And so the Torah offers the greatest freedom of all –freedom from death.
The mitzvos that a person does during their life-time in this physical world, live on forever to the eternal merit of the soul. The soul and all our actions in this world are immortal. Through the Torah we transcend the physical constraints of time and all the elements of the physical world, even death. One of the deepest human needs is to achieve some kind of immortality. That is why so many people want to build monuments or have things named after them, so that will be able to live on forever, at least in the memory of other people.
The drive for immortality is very powerful. People want continuity for themselves. It is very painful for any person to think that after they are gone, there will be no remnant of anything of them left in the world, to the extent that it will be as if they never existed. Torah gives us the chance to escape mortality because every action we do becomes part of eternity for better or for worse.
The soul is immortal and when we leave this world the only things we take with us are our deeds. The more mitzvos we do the more merit and reward we take with us into eternity. Judaism teaches that there are two worlds: this physical world and the next world, the world of the souls. Every day our deeds are being etched into the eternity of our souls and the greatest monuments we build are our daily mitzvos – no matter how insignificant they may seem to us. Every cent of tzedaka, every word of Torah; every time we refrain from Lashon Hara or treif food, every moment of Shabbos observed, every act of kindness or kind word uttered is recorded for eternity. And so the Torah is the gateway to freedom from death itself.
Freedom with Energy and Inspiration
Freedom is about living without constraints and hence it is about living with energy and inspiration. The Torah guides us on how to unleash the power of our soul, which is the source of all energy and inspiration. This idea is expressed in one of the most important mitzvos of Pesach. Matza is the bread of freedom because it reminds us that things happened with such speed that our ancestors’ bread didn’t even have the time to rise. Why did G-d engineer their leaving Egypt in such a way that it was a rush? He was in control of events. He could have given them ample opportunity to prepare their bread properly. It hardly seems like a good Jewish event with the catering poorly organised. Clearly, G-d wanted matza to be the symbol of our freedom from Egypt, and so, He orchestrated the rushed departure, which itself has become emblematic of the exodus.
The Maharal of Prague says that matza represents the spiritual world because it is made in exactly the same way as bread – both as to process and ingredients – except for one very important thing: time. Matza is baked within 18 minutes of the water coming into contact with the flour so that it does not ferment and rise to become chametz, minus time. It follows that, matza equals chometz minus time. Time, says the Maharal, is a symbol of the physical world; matzo, which is bread without time, is therefore spiritual bread, and hence also the symbol of freedom. That is why it is associated with speed. The capacity to do things quickly results from a person’s energy, which comes from the soul. The human body without a soul cannot move and is lifeless and heavy. It is the Divine soul within us that is the source of energy, movement and life itself. The Maharal says that matzo represents the Torah value of what is called zerizut, alacrity – energetic action. When it comes to doing good in the world Judaism teaches us to be action orientated.
Through its blueprint for life the Torah unleashes the incredible potential and energy of the Divinely-given soul within each one of us. That is the great blessing of strength and energy that comes from Torah. Every morning we say blessings of thanksgiving to G-d for all of the daily miracles which we need in order to live and function, one of which is the blessing of thanks to Hashem “who gives strength to the weary”. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler says in the name of the Zohar that G-d gives strength to those who are tired yet pour out their energies into doing mitzvot, which are often time and energy-consuming. You would imagine that the more effort one invests in fulfilling the commandments the more tired one would become. You could say that to live a Torah life-style is good, but it must surely be exhausting with all the good deeds that must performed whether at shul or for poor people or learning Torah, cleaning for Pesach etc. On the contrary, G-d promises extra energy and strength from doing the mitzvos. When we live in sync with the laws of Hashem we actually unleash and liberate new forces and powers within ourselves and in the world, powers that we never knew existed. We liberate our true inner powers and so Torah becomes the path to the true freedom of potential fulfilled.
Freedom Agenda Part IV: Blueprint for Jewish Destiny
No one knows where the major upheavals in the Arab world will lead. They may bring more freedom and safety, or more extremist fundamentalism and dangers. Either way, there are major historical forces at play. How do we understand human history and destiny from the perspective of the Torah blueprint? And how does this understanding relate to the idea of freedom?
From a Jewish perspective, these times raise even more concerns in terms of two constant threats to our people: assimilation and anti-semitism. From within, assimilation driven by ignorance of Torah Judaism is impacting on Jewish continuity. From without, anti-semitism has again become a major force in world affairs, with particular focus on our Jewish state. We see the mounting political and military threats to the State of Israel : the international deligitimisation and sanctions campaign; Hamas in the South, Hezbollah in the North, and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is natural to feel a sense of trepidation at the dangers looming on the horizon. What is our way forward?
Pesach the great festival of freedom gives expression to an important Torah idea: G-d is interested and involved in the affairs of human beings both on the individual level as well as the level of nations and the sweep of the history and destiny of humankind. On Pesach we remember how G-d intervened in the course of events in a miraculous way that over-turned the normal laws of history, and dramatically defeated a world super-power, and forced it, through open miracles, to release an oppressed slave nation.
This is such an important idea that when Hashem introduced Himself in the opening lines of the Ten Commandments He said “I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out of the Land of Egypt the house of slavery”. He did not say “who created heaven and earth”. The Ten Commandments as the first part of the Torah revealed to the entire Jewish People, is predicated upon the idea that G-d is interested in our lives and what think, say and do. In that sense it was appropriate to refer to the exodus from Egypt which demonstrated Hashem’s direct involvement in and concern for human history.
G-d is not a distant being who once created the universe and then left it to its own devices. He created the universe and our world in order to engage with us. The Torah is personal. It contains G-d’s instructions to each and every single one of us on how to live our lives because He is interested in us. He is interested in human affairs. He is the driver of history. He is not passive and detached. The very foundations of our People are based on the Exodus experience and G-d as the active driving force in human affairs.
Freedom from History
Rabbi Yitzchak Kossowsky published a Pesach message in 1938 in Johannesburg. The dark shadow of the Nazi threat hangs heavily over his words at that time, although no-one could have imagined the impending horror of the Holocaust. Rabbi Kossowsky explained what real freedom is about. Pesach is referred to as a time of our freedom. Rabbi Kossowsky noted that it is the word ‘cheirut,’ which is used in our prayers over Yom Tov to describe Pesach, not the word chofesh. Although cheirut and chofesh are both translated as “freedom”, they have different meanings. Chofesh connotes ordinary independence-oriented freedom, while cheirut connotes a much more profound and transcendent freedom. Rabbi Kossowsky says that Cheirut refers to the miraculous destiny of the Jewish people rising above all adversity to achieve eternal transcendent freedom from the normal forces of history.
Jewish history and destiny defy the normal laws of human affairs. By all accounts we should not be here. All the other ancient civilizations and nations have disappeared. And yet in the face of thousands of years of exile and assimilation, the Jewish People has survived against all the odds until this very day. In terms of the normal laws of history nations disappear when they are exiled from their country; they disappear when they live as tiny minorities scattered across many continents with ferocious and implacable enemies. We have achieved freedom from the normal laws of history. How? When we are connected to Hashem and His Torah, then we achieve freedom from history, and Jewish continuity is, with G-d’s miracles, assured. This radical yet simple fact has been acknowledged by the world-renowned historian Paul Johnson (A History of the Jews p587): “Above all, that the Jews should still survive, when all those other ancient people were transmuted or vanished into the oubliettes of history, was wholly predictable. How could it be otherwise? Providence decreed it and the Jews obeyed.”
The gateway to our freedom from the normal laws of history is Hashem’s blessings, and the destiny and mission He gave us, at Mount Sinai, when He revealed Himself and His Torah to about 3 million of our people 3323 years ago. It states in Pirkei Avot(4:14): “Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar said: ‘Any community dedicated to Heaven will endure forever’”. Avot deRabbi Natan, the classic Talmudic text, says that the “community” referred to in this passage is Knesset Yisrael, the entire community of Israel since the Sinai experience. Accordingly, the community dedicated to Heaven, that will endure forever, is one which spans more than 3,300 years, from Mount Sinai to the present. We can only survive and indeed thrive, when we are aligned with, and committed to the values of the successive generations of Jews who themselves received and passed on the tradition from Sinai. It is the Torah that has made us an eternal people. No part of the Jewish people historically has survived after they have severed their ties with the Torah.
Night of Freedom and Destiny
On Seder night and throughout Pesach we feel an even stronger connection to Knesset Yisrael. It is a night of freedom from history, as we feel the connection to our Divinely mandated Jewish destiny. The Haggadah says that every single Jew should feel as if he or she personally went out of Egypt. We are part of the very same community as our ancestors, who saw with their own eyes the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the greatest liberation of all times. We feel G-d’s miracles throughout our history as we say in the Haggadah, “in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us – and the Holy One, Blessed is He, saves us from their hand.” We feel G-d’s blessings and protection as we say these ancient words in a magnificent prayer on the Seder night: “You redeemed us from Egypt, L-rd our G-d, and freed us from the House of Bondage. In famine You nourished us; in times of plenty, You sustained us. You delivered us from the sword, saved us from the plague and spared us from serious and lasting illness. Until now your mercies have helped us. Your love has not forsaken us.”
Seder night is not only a night of remembering past redemptions and liberations, but also a night for being mindful of future ones, and the ultimate future liberation and redemption of the world. In fact, one of the concluding prayers in the Haggadah is the “Nishmat kol Chai” – “the breath of every living being” – a great and ancient prayer and is about we looking forward to the time of the final redemption when the breath of every living being will acknowledge G-d’s presence in the world. Our destiny starts with Mount Sinai and ends with the vision of the Prophets for the Final Redemption and a better world, for a time which the prophet Isaiah described in these memorable words: “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the L-rd as the waters cover the sea … Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
And so during these times of challenge, we can find freedom from the powerful forces of global politics and history. We must find our clarity of purpose. Our freedom lies in our loyalty and passion for our G-d-given destiny and mission which, with G-d’s miracles, has enabled us to transcend challenges all through the ages.
Let us take note of what is happening in the world. We need to live interested in and open to everything around us. The Torah trains us to take nothing for granted and to always be engaged with life, constantly alert for its lessons and messages for us. The major spirit and theme of these months is freedom. As we celebrate our festival of freedom, Pesach this year should be different and even more inspiring than usual. Let us realise that when G-d gave us His Torah He gave us an agenda for freedom and a blueprint for creating a better world. Without His Torah there is no real freedom for any of us. And we proclaim this truth as we raise our wineglasses this Pesach.
The four cups of wine that we drink at the Pesach Seder represent freedom and correspond to the four expressions of redemption that G-d uses to promise freedom to our people: “I will take you out … I will save you … I will redeem you … I will take you to be My nation”. These four expressions of the redemption are the framework, the “big picture,” of the exodus from Egypt. The culmination of these four expressions of redemption and freedom —the ultimate purpose – is to be connected to G-d, to receive His Torah and follow His commandments. And that is why G-d took the Jewish people out of Egypt and brought us, soon as possible (seven weeks), to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the occasion of which is celebrated on Shavuot. Pesach and Shavuot are strongly linked today through the mitzvah of counting the “omer” – that is the 49 days between the liberation from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai. The freedom from Egypt was not complete until the Torah with its agenda for freedom came into the world.
The struggle for freedom continues. Let us go forward with confidence and strength as we embrace our Torah blueprint in all its aspects as our gateway to freedom. Let us give thanks that we have G-d’s freedom agenda and His blueprint for creating a better world. And let us all pray for the speedy fulfilment of the prophecies for the ultimate freedom of the entire world that will come with the Final Redemption.