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Freedom

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It is written: “And the tablets were the work of G-d, and the writing was G-d’s writing, engraved on the tablets.”[1] Read not “engraved” but “freedom”—for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with Torah.

Ethics of the Fathers 6:2

The Holy Tongue is written without vowels, so that the word chrt (chet, reish, tav) can be read both as charut, “engraved” and as chairut, “freedom.” Thus, the words “engraved on the tablets” (the two tablets which Moses brought down from Mount Sinai engraved with the Ten Commandments) can also be understood as “freedom on the tablets,” expressing the idea that true freedom can be gained only in a life that is faithful to Torah.

Indeed, the two readings complement each other: the fact that the tablets were engraved explains why they are the ultimate vehicle of freedom.

The difference between written and engraved words lies in their relationship with the medium that bears them. Written words are added to parchment or paper. The ink might adhere firmly to the  paper, but they remain two distinct entities—entities that might even conceivably be separated. On the other hand, words engraved in stone are formed out of the stone itself; they are one with their medium, the words being the stone and the stone being the words.

By nature and inclination, the human being is not free. He is subject to the dictates of natural law, the norms of his society, and his own physical and psychological compulsions. But the Torah frees him from these enslavements. By showing him how to make his life an exercise in the fulfillment of the divine will, it liberates him from his animal self, from the mundanities of material life, and from the very finiteness and temporality of the physical. It establishes him as the prime actor in the divine purpose in creation, raising him from the creature to partnership with the Creator.

But doesn’t Torah represent a slavery of another, albeit loftier, sort? Better a slave of G-d than a slave to one’s corporeal self, but why speak of the Torah as an agent of freedom? Can one refer to a person who is subject to an authority that instructs every area of his life as “free”?

Indeed, if the Torah were something outside of and above the person, fidelity to its laws would hardly constitute freedom. But Torah is not written law—law that is imposed upon its observer—it is engraved law, law that is of a piece with its bearer. The Torah and the Torah-observer are not two distinct entities; they are one, as engraved words are one with their medium. G-d formed the human soul in His own image, molding it in the shape and substance of His wisdom and will. Comprehending and implementing Torah, man comprehends and realizes his truest, deepest self. And there is no greater freedom than the freedom to be oneself.

Based on an address by the Rebbe,  Tammuz 17, 5745 (July 6, 1985)

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[1]. Exodus 32:16.

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