liberty


We are reaching the end of the annual cycle of reading Pirkei Avot between Pesach and Sh’vuot.

Pirkei Avot (“Chapters of the Fathers;” sometimes English-titled “Ethics of the Fathers”) consists of 6 chapters. If evenly spread out, one chapter can be read on each Shabbat between the end of Pesach and the beginning of Sh’vuot.

On the giving of Torah, chapter 6 of Pirkei Avot records:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says:
“… ‘the writing is God’s writing, engraved on the tablets.’ [1]
Don’t read the text as ‘engraved’ (‘chah’rut’) but rather as ‘liberty’ (‘chay’rut’) —
for there is no free person, except one who deeply immerses him/herself in Torah-study…”  [2]

“Chah’rut” and “Chay’rut” contain the same 3 root-consonants in Hebrew. They’re distinguished by a change in only a single vowel. By the similarity of the Hebrew words, through an elegant word-play, Rabbi Yehoshua derives a crucial lesson.

Coming as this reading does shortly before Sh’vuot — the anniversary of Matan Torah — it completes, in a way, the theme of liberation that began at Pesach.

In fact, Rabbi Yehoshuah’s Hebrew term for a “free person” is “ben chorin” — the same term read at the end of “Ha Lachma Anya” in the Pesach-seder (in the plural: “b’nai chorin”) for the Israelites after they were freed from slavery in Egypt. He therefore appears to be deliberately connecting the physical/political “freedom” of the Y’tziat Mitzrayim/Exodus with the spiritual freedom that is Torah’s gift.

Why does Rabbi Yehoshua say that only one who immerses him/herself in Torah study is a free individual?

Torah-study in its truest sense is applied on the deepest levels of personal life. It teaches “yirat Ha-Shem” — “Fear of God,” which as I discussed in a previous post, means being aware that the consequences of our actions are inescapable. That awareness should lead us to make increasingly wise personal choices, especially bitachon (trusting God) or emunah (faith in God). Torah-learning therefore can and should liberate us from “slavery” to our own impulses.

How?

Not by repression — one of the major errors in the pursuit of spiritual growth. Repression merely excludes the impulse or feelings from conscious awareness. We fool ourselves into thinking that if we don’t “see it” or “feel it,” it’s “not there.” This always turns out to be mistaken. Sooner or later, in one way or another, a repressed feeling will make itself known in some behavioral, cognitive, emotional or physical condition. That is certainly the basis of Freud’s work — which itself became the basis of most modern psychotherapeutic schools. But the rabbis were already assuming this 2000 years ago.

Torah-study should make us look at our feelings honestly and find better ways to manage their expression.

Repression denies us the chance to look at our feelings honestly, because by repressing them, we’re not looking at them at all. We’re simply denying that they’re there.

It echoes Patanjali’s classical yogic teaching: “Yoga is the restraint of changes in ‘mind-stuff’ [consciousness].” [3] He certainly didn’t mean that Yoga equals repression or suppression of feelings. Among the tools he offers for attaining a state in which the mind remains calm are the ethical disciplines “yama” and “niyama:”

“Yoga is rooted in the notion of developing a positive personality. Therefore ethical discipline or the practice of correct conduct is necessary for success in yoga. This is the basis of yama and niyama, the two moral backbones of yoga. They define the attributes to be practised in everyday life by a spiritual aspirant.
Yama is the first limb of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga and means ‘taking a vow’ while niyama is the second limb and means ‘rule of conduct’. Yama and niyama are inter-dependent. Niyama strengthens and safeguards yama. For example, if one is contented, one will not steal, hurt others or tell lies and will find it easy to practise non-covetousness.
When one is sufficiently advanced in the practices of yamas and niyamas, one can face every temptation by calling in the aid of pure and restraining thoughts. When the mind becomes pure it attains the state of steadiness and becomes one-pointed. If these positive qualities are not cultivated, the mind cannot be led to steadiness. One needs to be well established in yama-niyama to attain perfection in yoga. When one is perfectly established in them, samadhi will come by itself.” [4

Spiritual freedom is the truest freedom.

Both Rabbi Yehoshua and Maharishi Patanjali are telling us: Strive for self-mastery by using the Divine tools you are given to learn to manage your impulses in such a way that you don’t obscure the natural, transcendental peace of your own mind. 

Such a person is “free.” He or she does not rail against the Divine Will that pervades all experience. In Patanjali’s terms, he or she does not create his/her own mental turbulence. The Hovot ha-Levavot [5] similarly declares:

“Among the worldly advantages of trust in G-d are to be counted: a heart at rest, without worldly cares; a tranquil spirit, liberated from mental disturbance and free from the pain of the lack of physical enjoyments.” [6]

Coming to live at peace with God is simultaneously coming to live at peace with ourselves. 

It’s a peace that can’t be “triggered” into turmoil by outer events or conditions. 

We are “free” of “being triggered,” because we have learned that all along, it has really been we, ourselves, who were allowing ourselves to be triggered.

We can learn to do better than habitually and unthinkingly responding to “triggers.” 

As the Sfas Emes [7] teaches:

“Torah enables man to free himself of his physical desires and master his material nature. In contrast, one who does not occupy himself with Torah has no direction in life and becomes enslaved to his body, and there is no greater slavery than this.” [8]

No one should think this can be attained suddenly. It takes time and practice. 

Meditation is a great tool in this.

But when finished with meditation, it is ultimately our own judgement or misjudgement of things that upsets us.

What else is Torah, than accepting the Divine Will in all things?

Accept and you won’t be upset.

Thus, the theme of freedom that began on Pesach reaches its culmination on Sh’vuot. 

It’s why we rejoice at the Torah having been given to us.

And through us, to the world.

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[1] Sh’mot/Ex. 32:16
[2] Pirkei Avot 6:2
[3] Yoga Sutras 1:2
[4] http://www.yogamag.net/archives/2009/ajan09/y&n.shtml
see also:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yamas
and
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niyama
[5] Bahya ben [or ibn] Joseph ibn Paquda (11th century CE), known as “The Hovot ha-Levavot” after the title of his book.
[6] Bahya ibn Pakuda; Duties of the Heart; Feldheim Publishers; vol. 1, p. 291; see also p. 293 and
http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/doth/doth38.htm
[7] Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905), known as the “Sfas Emes/Sfat Emet” after the title of his well-known book, was a Rebbe of the Gerrer Hasidim.
[8] http://ascentofsafed.com/cgi-bin/ascent.cgi?Name=avos6