What is True Freedom?

Tikkun Leil Shavuot Reader for Teens

May 25, 2024
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Dedicated to the brave members of the Israel Defense Forces who continue to risk their lives for Am Yisrael, and in loving memory of all those lost on, and since, October 7, 2023. May their memories be for a blessing. In the merit of our learning this Shavuot, may we see the remaining hostages released safely and speedily.

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary describes freedom as:


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Points to Ponder

  • Do you think this is an accurate description of the concept of freedom?
  • How might religious teachings and values disagree with this?

There are fundamental differences between the way that the western, secular world sees the concept of freedom and the way that religions in general see this concept.

Judaism differs again from the way that other world religions view freedom. Let’s now explore the Jewish concept of freedom

Freedom: The Jewish way

Read this extract from a Pesach message Rabbi Sacks wrote in 2012:

The story of Pesach, of the Exodus from Egypt, is one of the oldest and greatest in the world. It tells of how one people, long ago, experienced oppression and were led to liberty through a long and arduous journey across the desert. It is the most dramatic story of slavery to freedom ever told, one that has become the West’s most influential source-book of liberty. “Since the Exodus,” said Heinrich Heine, the 19th century German poet, “Freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent”.

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Point to Ponder

  • What does Heinrich Heine mean when he says: “Since the Exodus, freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent”?

A few short weeks ago, Jews around the world celebrated Pesach. Central to the Pesach seder, is the following passage:

רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אוֹמֵר: כָּל שֶׁלֹּא אָמַר שְׁלשָׁה דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ בַּפֶּסַח, לא יָצָא יְדֵי חוֹבָתוֹ, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: פֶּסַח, מַצָּה, וּמָרוֹר.

Rabban Gamliel would say: Anyone who does not say these three things on Pesach has not fulfilled his obligation, and these are they: Pesach, matza and bitter herbs.

Pesach Haggadah

These three crucial elements to the Pesach Seder are multi-symbolic. For our context, the Pesach sacrifice represents freedom and the maror represents slavery. The matza represents both – the Jews ate matza as slaves in Egypt (‘lechem ani’ – bread of affliction) and they ate matza when they departed Egypt in a hurry.

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Point to Ponder

  • Why does Rabban Gamliel list these three in the order that he does? Surely the symbols of slavery would come before those of freedom, given that they happened chronologically earlier?

Rabbi Sacks answers this question by explaining that according to the Chassidic teachers, slavery only tastes bitter to a free human people. Had the Israelites forgotten their previous freedom they would have grown used to slavery. The worst exile, he says, is to forget that you are in exile:

To truly be free, we must understand what it means to not be free. Yet ‘freedom’ itself has different dimensions, a point reflected in the two Hebrew words used to describe it, chofesh and cherut. Chofesh is ‘freedom from’, cherut is ‘freedom to’. Chofesh is what a slave acquires when released from slavery. He or she is free from being subject to someone else’s will. But this kind of liberty is not enough to create a free society. A world in which everyone is free to do what they like begins in anarchy and ends in tyranny. That is why chofesh is only the beginning of freedom, not its ultimate destination”.

Pesach message to the Jewish community, 2012

Let’s zoom in on the usage of the word ‘charut’ by the Torah and see how Pirkei Avot connects it to ‘cherut’ – freedom. Pirkei Avot, analysing the verse in Shemot teaches us as follows:

וְאוֹמֵר וְהַלֻּחֹת מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹהִים הֵמָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּב מִכְתַּב אֱלֹהִים הוּא חָרוּת עַל הַלֻּחֹת, אַל תִּקְרָא חָרוּת אֶלָּא חֵרוּת, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ בֶן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה.

It also says, “The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved (charut) on the tablets.” Read not charut (‘engraved’) but cherut (‘freedom’), for the only person who is truly free is one who occupies himself with Torah study.

Pirkei Avot 6:2
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Point to Ponder

  • Judaism teaches us that one becomes free by engaging in the study of the Torah. Why do you think the Mishna in Pirkei Avot emphasises the pun on the word ‘charut’ – ‘engraved’?

Take a look at this cartoon:

freedom ten commandments cartoon terms and conditions
  • Consider what message the cartoonist is trying to convey.
  • What terms and conditions do you think might be engraved in the small print here?

Contemporary scholar Rabbi Pinchas Kantrowitz notes that the Ten Commandments could not merely be written; they had to be engraved. The inscription had to be indelibly impressed upon the Tablets.

Charus - engraved” is not incidental; it is imperative. It hints to “cheirus - freedom,” spiritual form directing and defining physical matter. This is ultimate “freedom” from the physical.

According to Pirkei Avos, Torah study is not merely one avenue to freedom; rather, it is the only avenue to freedom. Even an absolute monarch of a vast domain with abundant wealth and prodigious power is not free, as he always faces the threat of the insurrection of his subjects. Only one involved in the spiritual, the eternal, is capable of transcending the physical world absolutely, and dominating absolutely the physical universe.

Torah study is obviously more than casual perusal; to achieve the freedom of the Torah, it must be “engraved on the tablets of our heart;” it must be lived.

By elevating the physical and infusing it with the “form” of Torah and mitzvahs, the Torah scholar transcends the limitations of the material world; he frees himself from the deterioration and decay of the physical by converting finite physical, matter into infinite spiritual form. He is truly free.

Rabbi Pinchas Kantrowitz, Let Freedom Reign, http://ohr.edu/holidays/shavuot/the_torah/975
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Point to Ponder

  • With Rabbi Kantrowitz’s ideas in mind, consider how Judaism views the concept of freedom? Suggest some ways that this is relevant to you in your life?

Rabbi Sacks reminds us that unlike the determinist schools of thought (i.e. that all human actions are predetermined and not caused by human free will), Judaism is a religion of freedom and responsibility.

Read the following two sources:

Judaism insists that we are masters of our fate. We are neither programmed nor predestined. We can choose. That is the fourteenth principle of Jewish faith.

Rabbi Sacks, Covenant & Conversation: Deuteronomy, p. 287

Judaism constantly asks us to exercise our freedom. To be a Jew is not to go with the flow, to be like everyone else, to follow the path of least resistance, to worship the conventional wisdom of the age. To the contrary, to be a Jew is to have the courage to live in a way that is not the way of everyone. Each time we eat, drink, pray or go to work, we are conscious of the demands our faith makes on us, to live God’s will and be one of His ambassadors to the world. Judaism always has been, perhaps always will be, countercultural.

Rabbi Sacks, Ceremony & Celebration, p. 84
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Point to Ponder

  • What is your responsibility as a Jewish person in the 21st century?


The Jewish idea of freedom is markedly different to that of secular, Western society which claims freedom is the ability to do what you want, when you want, how you want and with who you want, within the law, as long as it doesn’t affect the freedom of others.

Judaism’s understanding of freedom is based on the idea that a person can only achieve true freedom by being connected to the Infinite – God, the source of freedom.

According to Judaism, this state of freedom is expressed through:

  • Exercising ones free will.
    • The ability to ‘choose life’.
    • Performance of the mitzvot (including both interpersonal laws, and those between humans and God).
    • Study of Torah.
    • Education.

Nobel prize-winning author Andre Gide teaches us that “To know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one’s freedom.” Shavuot is an annual a reminder to us that God gave the Jewish people the Torah as the pathway to find true freedom. This freedom is engraved on our hearts in the same way that the commandments were engraved onto the tablets of stone. The Torah asks of us to do something useful with our freedom.

The festival of Shavuot represents many things, yet perhaps the most powerful of all, is that it imbues us with the strength, power and knowledge to take the next step in our Jewish journey.

This Shavuot, ask yourself...

What is the next step on YOUR Jewish journey?

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This Shavuot resource has been prepared by Simon Lawrence, Director of Jewish Life at Carmel School, Perth, Western Australia, and a Sacks Scholar.

Simon wishes to recognise his colleagues and students at Carmel School for their input into building this unit of study over many years. With eternal gratitude to ‘Moreinu’, our teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for depth and breadth of his wisdom.

For further Shavuot materials for both students and adults, please visit our full range of Shavuot and Tikkun Leil resources.