Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

Who are you, really?


There are two types of letters, written and engraved. What’s the difference between them? The obvious one: a written letter can be erased while an engraved letter cannot be erased (without destroying the stone into which it is engraved). This difference is due to a deeper and more essential difference: a written letter is formed by putting two separate things together —and just as they were put together, they can be separated again— while the engraved letter comes from the stone itself. In other words: the written letter is something foreign imposed while the carved letter is something indigenous that becomes exposed.

As the famous sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti is reported to have said: “sculpting is easy, all you need to do is remove the excess stone, thereby releasing the sculpture trapped within”.

What does all this have to do with anxiety and depression?

It often happens that anxiety and depression are the result of a lack of clarity regarding personal identity. Who am I and what do I really want, beyond what I think that I want?

People spend fortunes searching for someone who can help them figure out this puzzle.

Bearing in mind the difference between written letters and carved letters can help one identify which is the “message” carved into the depth and essence of our being and which is merely something strange added to us that instead of expressing our true desires, covers them up and ends up suffocating us.

In its description of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, the Torah says [1]: “The tablets had been made by G-d and the writing was G-d’s writing, engraved on the tablets”. Regarding the word Charut —engraved— used in this verse, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says [2]: “Do not read the word [only] as Charut (engraved) but [also] as Cherut (freedom) [3], for there is no one free but he who dedicates himself to the Torah.

At first glance, it would seem to be the opposite: with its many obligations and prohibitions, how can we consider the free one to be the one who dedicates himself to the Torah? Wouldn’t logic indicate that the individual who does what he or she wants instead of what is imposed on them, is freer than the one whose choices are dictated by the limitations and impositions of the Torah?

Based on what we explained about the written and engraved words, it becomes clear. The Torah’s obligations and prohibitions are not something external imposed on us like the ink of written letters; rather, they allow us to identify, access, activate and express that which is buried deep within our essence, and like the engraved letter, it is never erased. It can happen that the engraved letter becomes covered with dust or some other sediment, but when that happens, all we need to do is remove the accumulated dirt in order to restore the original clarity and shine of our own essence and our connection to it.

At the Exodus from Egypt we freed ourselves from slavery to an external tyrant —Pharaoh— but we are still enslaved to a en even worse tyrant: ourselves. Our instincts enslave us in a way that no one and nothing else can. We often convince ourselves that we want to follow the dictates of our instincts, that that is what we really want, and that by doing so we will be free. At the foot of Mount Sinai we learned the great secret of human satisfaction and happiness: unlike the animal whose freedom and power depend on its ability to satisfy its instincts freely, the truly free and happy man is the one who can master his instincts and channel them towards a goal greater than his immediate and ephemeral satisfaction that leaves no trace.

Although shopping can produce much satisfaction, it cannot be compared to the satisfaction of a good investment.

So this week’s tool is: in order to define what you really want when faced with a choice, think about whether it is something that expresses who you really are or merely what you only seem to be.


Exodus, 32:16

Pirkei Avot, 6:2

Being that the Torah text contains only letters with no vowels, it is possible in many cases to read the same word several ways. This can lead to grave errors (see for example Yalkut Shimoni on the Torah 938:34) or, if used correctly, reveal embedded layers of understanding (as in our case).

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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