Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 6 June 2020 / 14 Sivan 5780

The Morning Blessings: Blessing Three - Celebrating Freedom The Jewish Way

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

“Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me a slave.”

The philosophy behind the “negativity” of the previous blessing serves as the key to help us understand the third blessing and the depth of the message it conveys.

No one wants to be a slave. The dictionary definition of slavery does not make for very pleasant reading: Slavery is any system in which principles of property law are applied to people, allowing individuals to own, buy and sell other individuals, as a de jure form of property. A slave is unable to withdraw unilaterally from such an arrangement and the slave works without remuneration.

It is clear why no one wants to be a slave. It would seem that the aversion to being enslaved is such a basic and straightforward concept that there is no need to recite a blessing over our being free. And yet the third blessing that we recite each morning is, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me a slave.” Not only that, but it is the second of the three blessings that are recited in the negative. As with the previous blessing, the meaning behind the blessing is clear: We are thanking G-d for having made us free. And yet, for the second time, the Sages use a language that is distinctive in its composition and which requires clarification.

Why did the Sages not simply compose the blessing as, “Blessed are You… for having made me free”? Worded like that, the blessing would clearly convey the message that we are here in this world in order to reach beyond ourselves. To stretch upwards towards our potential and to use our freedom to build up the world. In effect, to be attached to G-d. But, as before, our Sages chose to couch the blessing in negative terms. Why?

It transpires that there might be an intrinsic difference of opinion between the Torah and the secular society as to how to define “free.” Our Sages, in their thought-provoking moral and ethical treatise called Ethics of the Fathers (6:2), teach in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that a truly free person is someone who studies G-d’s Torah [and lives his life accordingly]. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, in his famously eloquent style, that the Torah is not a crushing and constricting yoke. Rather, the Torah is a source of freedom that allows man to be loyal to himself and his G-dly soul. To be free to live according to the internal harmony of his personality. Rabbi Samuel ben Isaac de Uceda, in his classic commentary on Ethics of the Fathers, writes that unless man lives as G-d created him to, he is a slave to his own passions, to the standards of society or to the authoritarianism of dominant or fashionable cultures.

Accordingly, Jewish freedom is not to be defined as “an absence of servitude.” Jewish freedom does not mean that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, to whomever I want. Jewish freedom means each person utilizing his life in order to make the world a better place by learning G-d’s Torah and keeping His commandments.

That is definitely an electrifying idea! But how does it fit into the Morning Blessings? A blessing is a definitive statement. And freedom does not just mean that I am not enslaved. Jewish freedom means that I am doing the Will of G-d. Just as with the previous blessing, if I boldly claim that I am free – “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, for having made me free” — but I am not living up to what G-d wants from me — then I am not using my freedom in the way G-d wants me to. I am not connecting to G-d to become both better and bigger spiritually than I was up until now. And that may be the cause of G-d’s carefully examining how I use my freedom. It will be a thorough “Divine checkup,” delineating exactly how I live my life. Am I using my precious freedom to draw closer to G-d? Or am I ignoring it and drifting further away from Him?

But, on the other hand, I am beholden to acknowledge the dazzling gift of freedom that G-d has granted me. Yes, it is true that I may not be utilizing it to its fullest, but I still recognize it for what it truly is — the most effective and vivid method of connecting to G-d. Therefore, the Sages introduced another blessing written in the negative, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me a slave.” A blessing that is undeniable in practical terms, but will not be the cause of Divine scrutiny in the way that the blessing — if said in the positive — might be. Instead, it is stated as a blessing which reveals my inner yearning to be close to G-d, even if I am not totally succeeding at it right now.

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