Freedom – For What Purpose?

Along with their natural, land-bound significance, both of these festivals have general and historical significance. Pesaḥ is primarily a remembrance of the Exodus, the festival of freedom, whereas Shavuot is the day of the Giving of the Torah.

Even in their historical and spiritual sense, however, Pesaḥ and Shavuot must be regarded not as separate festivals, but as one continuum. In this sense, as well, they are festivals of beginning, festivals that express the experience of the dawn of the Jewish People.
Pesaḥ defines the people almost exclusively in the negative. The Exodus was the negation of assimilation, the negation of the Egyptian exile, and the negation of the Jew’s identity as one type of Egyptian.

Shavuot, in contrast, is the time of accepting the Torah, the positive definition of the Jewish People. Shavuot marks the establishment of the people’s authentic character, the determination of its life’s purpose and the direction in which it is heading.

If freedom were merely a negative concept — namely, the absence of slavery — then the release from slavery would, in and of itself, secure freedom. However, freedom also has positive content, which is not realized merely by removing the injustice. Servitude is a condition in which a person (or nation) does not do what he wants to do but what others tell him to do. Freedom, in contrast, is a state in which a person can do what he wants to do, lead his own life. Toward this end, however, he must have his own aspirations, his own life content. A freed slave who lacks such content is not, in fact, truly free.

This point pertains not just to human beings or to particular interpretations of the concept of freedom; rather, it is the basic definition of freedom. Freedom without an independent will has no content or essence, and therefore no existence.

This principle applies to every individual and every living creature, not only to the complex patterns of the nation’s spiritual life. Animals born and raised in captivity that escape their cages do not know how to live in freedom. They have no inner drive for an independent life and are thus incapable of living in a free world without masters and caretakers. When in their cages, they appear to be striving to get out, acting out of vague instinct. But when they do attain this freedom, they do not actually want it. Generally, they return after a short time to the comforts of the pen and its routine, to the caretaker who looks after them — even if he works them hard.
If this is true of animals, it is certainly true of human beings. To be free means to have a personality of one’s own, a life goal of one’s own, a goal that is worth striving for despite all the difficulties.

This idea is expressed succinctly in a famous saying of our sages. On the words “harut al haluhot” [Exodus 32:16] (which means “engraved on the Tablets”), our sages expound: “Do not read ‘harut’ (engraved) but ‘herut’ (freedom), for no man is free unless he engages in Torah study.”The paradox inherent in this saying is the paradox of freedom itself. One who does not occupy himself with Torah, one who does not have Torah, does not have a life of his own. The fact that at this moment the yoke of external enslavement is not upon him makes no difference. For what will he do with this freedom when there is nothing he really wants for himself? Hence, naturally and inevitably, he enslaves himself once more to whoever is willing to be his master and tell him what to do and how to act.


From “Shavuot”, Change & Renewal. Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. Maggid Books.

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