Kee Tissa: Following Gods Law leads to freedom, not restraint

Kee Tissa

Exodus 30:11-34:35

I Kings 18:1-39

Our ancestral teachers, the ancient sages, cultivated puns. They took their verbal play more seriously than most modern practitioners of the art, who seek only to amuse. The sages usually employed a pun to portray some instruction.

Take, for example, one of the most famous of the old puns. The Bible maintains that "The Tablets were the work of God, and the writing was of God, engraved on the Tablets" (Exodus 32:16). Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, "Do not read `engraved,' but rather `freedom,' for no one is free but one who engages in the Law" (Mishnah Avot 6:2).

In Hebrew, changing one vowel transforms engraved, harut, into freedom, herut; a tiny change, as the biblical text does not even have vowels.

Rabbi Yehoshua teaches a strange paradox. How could law generate freedom? Law apparently constrains and restricts, rather than freeing. One who obeys the law refrains from doing prohibited acts, and insists on doing required ones, instead of following free impulse. It makes sense for a rabbi to praise the Law, but why praise it as a source of freedom? Why not admit that the Law opposes freedom, and praise the Law as above freedom?

Let me propose a key to this paradox. The poet and essayist Ed Codish once observed to me that "freedom" means a different thing in ancient texts and in modern ones.

To the moderns, freedom indicates "freedom from." We say, "You can't tell me what to do, it's a free country." Ask us to form an image of someone truly free, and we think of someone taking the day off, sprawled on his couch watching the game, drinking beer and eating junk food. He has nothing to do, and no one to tell him what not to do. He can vegetate in freedom.

The ancients thought primarily of "freedom to." A free person can accomplish something meaningful. A talented person who practices the violin for years has the freedom to pick up the violin and produce sounds of exquisite beauty. I, who may not have had the talent and certainly have not exercised the discipline, have no meaningful freedom with a violin. Perhaps I can make it screech.

I recently used this insight into the changing meaning of freedom to help a student understand a passage of medieval philosophy. She asked my help with the end of the Kuzari, a philosophic work written around 1130 C.E. by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, where the author distinguishes four causes of events: direct divine intervention, nature, accident and human will. Only miracles exemplify the first level, direct intervention. We see the second level, nature, when a thing develops according to its inherent proclivities. When accidents can befall it, we see the third level. And when a human decides its fate, we see the fourth level, free will.

Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi draws an example from human speech. True prophecy exemplifies the first level, direct divine intervention. That human beings have the ability and need to communicate illustrates the second level, nature. The actual language spoken by a specific human includes the third level, accident, for all human languages share some natural structure, but the accidents of history determine the conventional words and constructions of a particular language. All language, then, combines natural and accidental elements (in this observation, Yehudah HaLevi sounds like the modern linguistic theoretician, Noam Chomsky). The artful speech of a poet, or of some other intelligent, thinking person who chooses words carefully to explore a subject, deserves to be called the product of human free will.

My student asked, "Why can free speech come only from an intelligent, thinking person?" I replied that, for Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, only a thinking person has the freedom to accomplish something significant with speech.

If so, a person who makes a whole life into something significant has achieved a high form of this kind of freedom. And that explains Rabbi Yehoshuah's paradoxical pun: "One who engages in the Law can become free."