Mordechai Soskil
Mordechai Soskil

Understanding Freedom

I found myself thinking about this Passover and the contrast to last year.  Last year my married kids had to decide which set of parents they would move in with.  Last year my father-in-law couldn’t join us at all because of his compromised health and how much we didn’t know about Covid. Last year my brother and sister-in-law and nieces were hunkered down at their own Zoom-seder-experience. Last year we couldn’t go to shul.  It felt like a reenactment of that first seder night in Egypt, the night of the Death of the First Born, when the people we told to hunker down by family and stay inside.  It didn’t feel like a holiday of freedom.  But this year, with the grace of Heaven and the hard work of scientists, everyone that could get the vaccine in our family has, and several of the young-marrieds had a very mild form of the virus already, so Boruch Hashem, we’ll all be together again.

And that had me thinking about the word freedom, specifically, the word we use in the prayer service for freedom – Cheirus. In the prayer service we ask Hashem to bestow his blessings on us during Pesach, the holiday of our freedom.  Zman Cheiruseinu.  But why specifically Cheirus?

In biblical and rabbinic Hebrew there are three words that all sort of mean Freedom.  Chofshi, Dror, and Cheirus.  What are the subtle differences between these words?  So what is so special about this synonym that it was chosen as the code word to encapsulate the essence of Pesach?

I was thinking that to really get a sense of what the Judaism’s idea of freedom is I would go back to the source.  Where in the Torah do we find the word Cheirus?  As a matter of fact, it appears nowhere.  Like, in no place at all.  0 places. The Torah talks about leaving Egypt around 50 separate times, not including the whole actual section of the Exodus described in the book of Exodus.  But it never actually uses the word freedom.

When the Torah commands us to let our slaves go free it the word Chofshi – in modern Hebrew that word means free from work, as in vacation, or free from rules, as in liberated.  And in one place made famous by our friends in Philadelphia, the Torah uses the word Dror -liberty.  The context there is that on the Yom Kippur of each 50th year the people should blow shofar as a way of “proclaiming liberty throughout the land.” Which is to say, all the indentured servants would be able to return home.

But the word Cheirus – Freedom- is not in the Torah.

Already my scholarly friends are remembering that a very similar word CHARUS does appear once, in a description of the luchot (the two tablets) that Moshe brought down from Sinai.  The Torah says that words were CHARUS on the luchot, where CHARUS means engraved through the stone.  That word CHARUS is a hapax-legomenon. (If that were one word then it would be the largest word I can use in conversation.  Alas, it’s two words.  A hapax legomenon is a word that appears only one time in Tanach.)  We only know what it means from context or from linguistic similarities.  From context it seems to mean engraved, and in terms of linguistic similarities, it is seems connected to CHARASH which means to plow or CHARAT which means to carve. But it certainly doesn’t mean “freedom.”

So I’m stuck. I can’t go back and analyze what the word Cheirus means from its Torah source, because again, it doesn’t have a Torah source.  So now we have  anew question – why did the sages of the Talmud abandon the Torah’s words for freedom and instead latch onto what appears to be an word adopted from Aramaic? What does the word Cheirus add that Chofshi and Dror are missing? Why do we call this zman cheirusienu and not zman chofsheinu or zman droreinu, which would translate, more or less the same?

I think the first part of unravelling this is to notice that Chofshi is not a positive state, it is the lack of a negative state.  Chofshi is a person who is freed from servitude.  They don’t have the status of a slave.  They were un-slaved, that’s it. Dror connotes that a person is able to travel where they want and live where they want.  (The Ibn Ezra says that the opposite is a wild bird that would rather starve to death in captivity than to sing for its master. Dror is the bird’s natural status of being able to fly and live where it wants.)  Maybe what both of these words are missing is something affirmative.  The sages were unsatisfied saying that we give thanks to Hashem for this time of being un-slaved.  They needed another word. Perhaps the insight is that Cheirus – Freedom – is not just about not being jailed or not being enslaved. The Freedom we are trying to feel and emulate has to be something even higher. Cheirus-Freedom is a positive state.  What could that mean?

To help get a better handle on what “the higher state of Cheirus-Freedom” might mean, let’s do the most Rabbi-like thing of all the Rabbi things and answer a question with yet another question. What is the difference between freedom and anarchy?

Anarchy means only whoever is bigger, meaner, crueler, will win, and all others will lose. Freedom means that I act with elevated dignity, I restrict my actions in some ways, so that my better angels can be seen and heard.  And when I do that, and when you do that, we can both win.  A Free People is a people that by virtue of its innate dignified essence, voluntarily accepts limits, so that everyone can win.

And this idea is deeply embedded in Rabbinic thought. The midrash and the Talmud connect that hapax legomenon CHARUS (engraved) with its cognate CHIERUS (freedom), saying that a person who dedicates themselves to the words that are CHARUS on the luchot (tablets) will experience CHEIRUS. This idea is now entirely comprehensible.  Only a people that dedicates itself to some restrictions and that holds itself elevated can really be free.  Other forms of “freedom” are just varying levels of anarchy.

Rabbi Akiva Tatz has a theory that connects well to this thinking. His idea goes something like this; since the Torah is the source for reality, it’s words help create reality.  That means that if a word appears in the Torah it has a certain validity – it is an existential, real concept.  It exists. But if a word doesn’t appear in the Torah the concept lacks a certain reality. One example he gives are the words in Rabbinic literature for certainty and doubt which don’t appear in the Torah. That’s because those are man made concepts.  From the perspective of the objective reality of the Torah there isn’t certainty and doubt there is TRUTH and FALSEHOOD. Things are true or false as a statement of their essence.  Things are certain or doubtful based on my comprehension of them. Truth is objective certainty is subjective.

If we apply Rabbi Tatz’s hypothesis to our synonyms for freedom, Chofshi, Dror, which appear in the Torah and Cheirus which does not, that Chofshi – the state of being un-slaved and Dror, the freedom to move about, those are objectively true. I am not enslaved. I am able to move about. Those are statements of reality. The Torah’s words of Chofshi and Dror are words that describe objectively true and verifiable.  But whether I have Cheirus – freedom or not is NOT objectively verifiable. It is a subjective state; it depends on me. I have to chose to feel that dignity and freedom.

All of this leads to the following unavoidable conclusion – on Pesach, when we say in our prayer service zman cheiruseinu, the time of our freedom, or when we act at the seder derech cheirus, in a way of a free person – we are not simply expressing that we are a people who is un-enslaved. Rather we are a people who feels elevated. The reality of our being indentured servants to student loans or shackled to our employer based health insurance or burdened by tuition payments are objective, verifiable aspects of reality.  But they don’t inform whether we are bnei chorin – a Free People. Being Free is an internal experience which can exist in a boardroom or in a ghetto. It’s not objective at all.

The luchos have one more insight for us into this Cheirus-Freedom.  The Kli Yakar is captivated by the midrash’s description of the writing on the luchos (tablets).  The midrash says that, miraculously, the words could be read from each side.  That is, even though they appeared to be engraved straight through, if you would look at the luchos from the other side, the words would not be inverted. You would still be able to read this miraculous writing from right to left, with the letters facing correctly.  That means then, that the words were not actually made in the stone.  This was not a regular case of the words being made out of stone or carved in the stone.  Rather the words themselves were a separate miraculous entity that floated or were carried on the stone.  They were on the stone but not OF the stone.

And that, he suggests is another explanation for how the CHARUS of the luchos points towards the CHIERUS – Freedom we seek to feel and celebrate. Freedom is not bound by our physical world just as the words were not bound by the physical luchos. They were carried on them, they were the vehicle that expressed them, but they were not the source of the words.  And our circumstances are not the source of our Freedom. Our ability to choose to be patient when the agitation sets in, to choose to give when we ourselves feel uncertain about the future, to choose to have faith in the Creator when we see suffering, this is Freedom. Freedom is on this world but not OF this world.

You know the part of the dvar Torah when it’s like, that’s nice, but, so what?  Here’s what. When we say the words in prayer zman chairuseinu – the time of our freedom – we should no longer just see those words as word of gratitude but also as a call to action. Just like when we say zman matan Torasienu (the time of the giving of the Torah) on Shavuos and we think, “please Hashem help me to accept/learn/do more Torah,” and just like on Succos when we say zman simchaseinu (the time of our joy) and we think, “please Hashem fill this year with a sense of joy that comes from growth and achievement,” so too when we say zman Cheirusienu, let us think, “please Hashem help me to achieve the freedom that comes as an expression of dignity and my ability to choose.”

Wishing you all a Chag Kasher v’sameiach.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies for the high school at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now two precious granddaughters.
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