For the week ending 11 June 2016 / 5 Sivan 5776

Shavuot: True Freedom

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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Shavuot is the grand finale, which commenced with Pesach. The whole point of Pesach was to bring the Jewish People to Mount Sinai to accept the Torah. Therefore, after leaving Mitzrayim (Egypt), the Jewish People counted up to the day when they would receive the Torah, which we now observe as the mitzvah of sefirat ha’omer. Thus, Pesach, sefirat a’omer, and Shavuot are all interconnected (see Ramban on Vayikra 23:36 and Kad Hakemach under “Atzeret”). In our tefillot (prayers), Pesach is referred to as “Zman Cherutenu”, the time of our freedom. Since Pesach and Shavuot are intertwined, the incredible freedom experienced on Pesach culminates with Shavuot, the day we received the Torah. In fact, there is an explicit mishna in Pirkei Avot that makes the connection between freedom and Torah: “Only someone who is involved with Torah is free” (Avot 6:2). This, however, is initially difficult to understand; it would seem more sensible to say that when one observes the Torah, one is living a life of truth, not freedom. In fact, at times, the Torah and its laws may seem “constrictive”, and one may feel as though his freedom is limited. Where, then, is the freedom in living a life of Torah and mitzvot?

True Will

Every person is composed of both a body and a neshama (soul). Of the two, the more important is the neshama, with the body merely meant to serve as the neshama’s clothing so that the neshama can exist in this physical world. Just as it would be false to say that a person is his clothing, so too it is nonsensical to claim that a person is his body. The yetzer hara (an inner inclination to do wrong), however, manages to fool us into believing that, in fact, the core of a human is indeed his body. It thus tricks us into thinking that our bodily desires are our true desires. Rabbi Dessler points out that the yetzer hara is so successful at this that when it comes to fulfilling our bodily needs, the yetzer hara speaks in the first-person perspective. For example, I want to eat that, or I need to sleep right now, etc. However, when the yetzer hatov (our inner inclination to do ‘good’) attempts to take the reins and steer us toward the right direction, he comes across in the second-person perspective. For example, You shouldn’t be doing that now, or You should really go to minyan (Michtav M’Eliyahu I, p. 255 and IV p. 286).

This, however, is just a distortion of the yetzer hara. A person’s true essence is his neshama, and his neshama constantly yearns to be close to G-d through observing the mitzvot. Perhaps the greatest proof of this is the feeling of regret and disappointment that generally immediately follows an action that one did only to mollify his bodily wishes. Before the deed is done, one is filled with a burning sensation; however, following the action, after his desires are quenched, he can tap into his real self. It is only at that moment that the yetzer hara’s hold over his true self becomes apparent, thus causing a sudden transformation in his feelings towards the action. It must be pointed out, however, that this is not always the case. Unfortunately, there are those who are so taken over by the yetzer hara that, even following the transgression, they don’t get in touch with their neshamot. As the Gemara says: One who sins and repeats it, it (the sin) becomes permitted to him in his own eyes (Kiddushin 20a). For these people, even after quenching their bodily desires, their body speaks louder than their neshama, thus preventing any feeling of regret.

With the above introduction we can now understand that the only way a person can become truly free is by performing his neshama’s desires. For that to happen, though, one needs to be in touch with his neshama, and know his real ratzon (will). Frequently, and understandably, the wills of both the body and the neshama are at odds with each other. In these times it is, ironically, by limiting the body’s liberties that one gains the soul’s liberty (see Rambam, Hilchot Gerushin 2:20 and Gur Aryeh on Vayikra 1:3).

For example, take someone who has trouble waking up on time for shacharit. As many times as he tells himself to get out of his bed, he still cannot manage to do so. One day he decides that he needs outside help, and recruits a close friend for his mission. He tells his friend not to give up, and instructs him to even forcefully pull him out of the bed, ignoring his pleas and screams to refrain. This man’s true will is to get up for shacharit, but his bodily desire for sleep gets in the way. While from an observer’s perspective, it may not look like it, through physical force his friend is actually giving him his freedom by enabling him to fulfill his true will.

Now we can understand why the Torah is the ultimate freedom. Many people are more in touch with their bodies than their souls, so they feel as though they are giving up their freedom when they deny their bodily desires to serve G-d. However, once one comes to realize that his true self is his neshama, everything changes. Torah is G-d’s will, G-d’s will is the neshama’s will, and his neshama’s will is his true will. When someone is toiling over Torah and occupying himself with fulfilling its laws, he is freeing himself from the bonds of the yetzer hara, and allowing himself to experience true autonomy. This is why Shavuot is the culmination of the freedom that began on Pesach, and this is why only a person who subjects himself to Torah is truly free.

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