Zeman Cheruteinu - Reflections of a Metzuveh Ve-oseh

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


For all the rich and varied imagery of Chag Ha-pesach, it is still an event dominated by the theme of cherut. Freedom characterizes this Yom Tov in our prayer - zeman cherutenu - and its assorted images recur throughout the seder. Most notable, of course, is our style of dining this evening - derekh haseiba - while reclining, fashioning ourselves as free and INDEED noble, even aristocratic individuals (1). Additionally, dipping our food this night further simulates an unconventionally lavish table etiquette. The abundance of wine - one cup for each segment of the evening - further establishes an atmosphere of luxury, indulgence, but above all freedom. Historically, the feast of the korban pesach was inspired by the motif of freedom, as demonstrated by the various halakhot which governed this meal. The meat was to be roasted, and its leftovers were not to be stored for another day. Only the poor and enslaved must preserve the crumbs of today's meal for tomorrow's and only the destitute must boil their beef into a "stew" thereby extending the period of its consumption. This evening we are free and indeed carefree, reveling in our newly acquired sovereignty, unconcerned, invulnerable and immune to life's common hardships.

Of course, independence is not merely the motif of the seder, but is our ambition and longing as well, as we introduce the evening by pronouncing, "hashatta avdei, le- shana ha-ba'a benei chorin" - currently we are subservient but we can envision our imminent liberation. As the final moments of the seder slowly ebb away, we dream of our redemption while celebrating our historic deliverance. The midnight air fills with the soft strains of "Nirtza," hopeful melodies yearning for the swift arrival of Mashiach tzidkenu. Truly this evening and its ceremony are infused in spirit and in symbol, in character and in conduct, by hopes and recognition of freedom.

However, what might seem manifest in our halakhic conduct proves exceedingly difficult from an experiential or emotional standpoint. Freedom to us, though easily accessible, is insufficiently grasped and all too often taken for granted. As freedom represents a natural state of the human condition, it is often not discerned until it has been snatched away. Without prior circumstances of confinement a free man will take little notice of what inherently is his. Operating as we do, in a society whose very underpinnings are founded upon the cornerstones of liberty and equality, we often overlook these values. Hence, to help underscore the value and cost of freedom, we commence the evening with "genut" - matchil bi- genut - tales of our harsh and bitter affliction, attempting to identify with the pre-redemptive state of captivity. This might allow, by way of contrast, a proper distillation of the authentic experience of sovereignty. Only by sampling the bitter maror can we begin to relish the sweet and refreshing flavor of freedom.

In attempting to savor the experience of freedom we face much more than the challenge of appreciating a privilege which we take for granted. As Jews, we are presented this evening with not only challenge but with dilemma and paradox as well. As shomerei Torah u-mitzvot we live a "commanded" life, governed in all its dimensions by a comprehensive system of taryag mitzvot. Given this reality, that we maintain a lifestyle which meets with constriction and prohibition, can we truly refer to ourselves as free beings? Pesach itself for all its grandeur and pageantry, for all its zeman cherutenu, anticipates Chag Shavu'ot, the moment of matan Torah and the Sinaitic covenant, the moment of legal constriction. Even those who left Egypt, amidst the elation and euphoria of their Exodus, recognized that their final destination, the very purpose of their liberation was "ta'avdun et ha-Elokim al ha- har ha-zeh" (2) (you will worship the Lord upon this mountain). Does the life of a "metzuveh ve-oseh" - a lifestyle to which we all aspire - abrogate human liberty? This lifestyle does offer in exchange Divine service, a more than equitable trade, but does this trade leave the ben Torah confined and restrained?

To be sure, such a state of serving God with our entire essence and being needs no external justification. It is a privilege to obey the Melekh Malkhei Ha-melakhim, and an ennobling service, one which obviously far surpasses the value of human freedom. To a large extent, the Pesach liberation is vital in preparation for the self-dedication and oath of allegiance performed seven weeks later. As slaves to a human sovereign, our acquiescence to Torah u-mitzvot is not a genuine display of commitment but merely replaces one monarchy with another. Pharaoh's authority is displaced by the Divine. Our liberty, though, and the accompanying freedom of choice, lends credibility and distinction to the events at Sinai. However, with this in mind, that we joyfully and fervently embrace Torah and its statutory constraints, what of our inalienable right to exist in a free state? Does the cherut of Pesach serve merely as a prelude to our acceptance of God's authority seven weeks later - the ultimate repeal of that freedom? Does na'aseh ve-nishma' annul zeman cherutenu and does "kafa aleihem har ke-giggit" - the midrashic account of God hoisting the actual mountain exhorting us to adopt the Torah lest we be buried alive - does that crush our fleeting and feeble sovereignty - a sovereignty which we supposedly extol on Pesach?

It is true that the very exercise of adopting the chukim and mishpatim of Torah reflects a bold implementation of our freedom - particularly our bechira chofshit, our freedom of choice. Willfully enrolling in this program of halakha, our continuous adherence essentially functions as a constant reaffirmation of that fateful moment of na'aseh ve-nishma'. Twice daily, while reciting shema we revive that frozen moment in time, donning our tefillin and embracing malkhut shamayim and Divine authority. Independence is never entirely canceled but supplies the energy for our vibrant and spirited avodat Hashem. On a daily basis we constantly renew our commitment, continually electing to surrender our freedom in exchange for avodat Hashem. Freedom, as Kant said, is obedience, but obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves. However, it would still appear, that subsequent to our acceptance of Torah, the dilemma remains: our freedom has been suspended as our daily routine is filled with regimented obeisance and repressed freedom; deliberately repressed - but still repressed. Defining Moral Freedom

To fully reconcile this dilemma, we must discriminate between the conventional definition of freedom and the Jewish one. In establishing our unique vision of freedom we confidently uphold that freedom and mitzvot are not antithetical but consonant, that they do not contradict but harmonize with one another, and that our Torah by its very agenda of taryag mitzvot - ha-nechmadim mi-zahav u-mipaz rav (3) - confers the highest and most pre-eminent form of human emancipation and independence. Freedom in the traditional sense refers to lack of hindrance and restraint. An entirely unobstructed state where none could interfere, insisted the classical social philosophers, reflected the native, primal and free state of a human being. Few denied that freedom could not remain unlimited for it would devolve into anarchy where the liberties of the weak would be suppressed by the strong. To varying degrees personal freedom must be curtailed to insure universal liberty as well as justice, happiness, equality and social order. Man willfully entered this "contract" never abrogating his innate rights but merely bartering them for insuranceof those very rights. In the private realm, however, where thought, opinion and conduct bear little effect upon social stability, man reigned unchecked and unrestricted; invasion of that preserve would be tantamount to despotism. In general then, the degree of freedom - socially, politically and individually - corresponded in direct measure to the freedom and deregulation of activity. In this context, the imposition of commandments and of religious doctrine curbs and constricts by its inherent limitational quality. Man's latitude is circumscribed, his freedom severely restricted if not absolutely denied.

By stark contrast, as Jews we recognize a more salient brand of freedom which might be termed moral or spiritual freedom. As human beings, we recognize that we stand divided against ourselves. Our spirits, our soul and our reason - the dominant self - are locked in battle with our bodily and corporeal nature - this appendage to which our neshama is tethered. When properly disciplined, when employed with balance and equilibrium, the passions, desires, and general aspirations attributed to our material aspects, complement our "real soul" in its spiritual development; they enhance our religious pursuit by providing the aesthetic quality necessary to embellish an otherwise listless observance. Ve-ahavta et Hashem Elokekha be-khol levavekha (4) - we worship with our many hearts, we seek and crusade with every aspect, every angle of our personality, each chamber of our innermost heart. Each of man's dual natures can and must be harnessed toward his lofty mission. However, when abused, these passions and emotions acquire an independent momentum usurping control of the ship and eventually steering her in the opposite direction. When these appetites are overindulged, they subjugate, subdue and enslave. Indeed, sitting atop our twentieth century perch we are all too familiar with this type of slavery - it is known as "addiction." It seductively lures and though cordially invited, eventually infiltrates and comes to possess a human, and, as a virus, saps the host's resources toward satiating its own cravings. It literally drains the man of his strength, dignity, and free will. What is true of the known severe addictions such as drugs and alcohol is certainly true, in proportion, with regard to the less debilitating but nonetheless perilous ones. To be liberated from this type of tyranny would then constitute a consummate and ideal freedom. Freeing the soul from this amalgam of senses and their puissant impulses so that the individual becomes the author of his own values and is not swept by every gust of passion and desire - this process confers the most genuine and precious form of freedom. The midrash portrays this form of liberty through a metaphor. It observes the difference between the manner in which Tanakh describes the thoughts or ruminations of moral and righteous personalities and the manner in which the musings of the dissolute are reported.

"'Haman said in his heart' - the evil are within the power of their hearts: 'Eisav said in his heart,' 'the corrupt says in his heart,' 'Yerav'am said in his heart,' 'Haman said in his heart.' The righteous, however, - their hearts are in their power: 'Hanna spoke to her heart,' 'Daniel placed it in his heart,' 'David said to his heart' - and in this they resemble the Creator: 'God said to His heart.'"

A moral and disciplined individual converses with his heart and to his heart - el libbo - implying distinction and disunity. As he has brought this bundle of desires and obsessions to its heel he is not a slave to his nature but instead is self-directing, self-governing and independent. His counterpart is the rasha, the helpless creature, an object, not a subject; a cheftza, not a gavra; a pitiful victim of unbridled passions whose identity lies completely submerged within his heart and is enslaved by his empirical material self. The only dialogue in this instance occurs within the heart, within the spur of the moment, within an emotional torrent. This degraded state of wild and lawless freedom essentially mocks freedom and, veiling itself as human liberty, subjugates and manipulates its victim. Without law there can be no freedom; without Torah u-mitzvot we cannot free ourselves from ourselves. We might be unrestrained and unobstructed - we are free from external tyranny or control but we aren't free to accomplish and are prevented from participation in the goal of spiritual self-realization. Luchot and Liberty

Chazal conceived a marvelously accurate and precise maxim for this principle. "Ein lekha ben chorin ela mi she-osek ba- Torah" (5) - only he that labors in Torah is truly liberated. The origin of this aphorism lies in the dual meaning of the form "cherut." When pronounced as such it means freedom; however, when pronounced "charut" it refers to engraved script. In parashat Ki Tissa (6) the Torah depicts the engraved inscription of God's commandments on the tablets - charut al ha-luchot. Ironically, the same root describing human freedom depicts the ten commandments - the laws which form the nucleus of the Jewish legal system; the tablets of charut serve as an image of liberty of cherut. Traditionally, in many cultures, the tablets were regarded as the most infamous symbol of religious oppression and repression. Their stony silence and unyielding burdensome mass epitomized ecclesiastical oppression, the stifling of human genius and the stamping out of emotion and imagination. In William Blake's The Book of Urizen, by issuing these tablets the Divine figure in effect "curses his children because no flesh nor spirit could keep his iron laws one moment." (7) As Blake writes in another work, "No individual can keep these laws for they are death to every energy of man and forbid the springs of life." Only the spirit of rebellion can rescue Man as this spirit announces "that fiery joy... perverted to Ten Commandments what night he led the starry hosts thro' the wilde wilderness, that stony law I stamp to dust." (8) By contrast, and stark contrast, for us, this most visible and vivid symbol of God's authority does not revoke our own autonomy but coincides with it and indeed promotes and invigorates it. What for others connotes captivity and confinement, for us trumpets freedom and liberty.

The Torah has chosen a unique moment to develop this association, this imagery of freedom within the law; the description of the luchot script using the word charut occurs just once in Tanakh. Moshe had just descended Sinai for what he would soon discover would be considerably more than a mere physical descent. He was to confront the worst desert mutiny, the worst national apostasy of all. Forty days earlier he had left a royal nation still basking in the ethereal glow of Har Sinai. He would now meet them in a deplorable and almost incomprehensible state of dissolution and degeneration. Enchanted by an idolatrous invention, their training, discipline, and adherence to the law had all begun to unravel. Mutiny begot murder, which in turn conceived idolatry, which for its part incited sexual violation and promiscuity. A dominant aspect of this crisis was the national yearning for religious freedom. "Eileh elohekha Yisrael" - these will serve as your new objects of worship - self-divinization, the self-creation of deity and its reflexive divinization of the self. The nation appropriated possibly the most unobtainable of human faculties - the ability to control religious destiny, the ability to fashion idols and invest them with power and authority thereby assuring one's own fate and future alike. No more kolot u-vrakim (9), no more "Al yedaber imanu Elokim pen namut" (10) - the terrifying and overwhelming voice of God - but darling and adorable calves, homely images whose authority stems from their human craftsman. The creation of these idols represented an ultimate state of freedom and control. It is this cowardly craving for freedom and se which underlies every pagan culture and sparked and fueled this revolt.

Moshe witnessed this depravity, one which masked itself as freedom but instead crippled and perverted human dignity and human freedom - one cannot imagine conduct more dehumanizing and demeaning than idolatry. "Moshe saw the people that it was wild" (11) - the nation wasn't liberated or acculturated but riotous, untamed, and savage. Their joyous exults weren't shouts of strength or courage, they weren't even cries of weakness or frailty. They were just simply "kol anot" (12) - the exultant barbaric roar of unleashed energy, all-consuming, and ravaging all in its path. It is precisely in this context, amidst this drama, that the symbolism of the luchot as liberty within law, as autonomy which is compatible with authority, must be highlighted and is so emphatically underscored by the word charut. Luchot are critical to demonstrate that without mastery over our impulses and our passions - a mastery which only Torah u-mitzvot confers our perceived freedom becomes twisted and distorted, placing Man at the mercy of the cruelest despot, the most vicious taskmaster - his own physical material self. Freedom, for all the glory which it entails, for all the human achievement which it can spark, must be properly moored and anchored so that it does not become distended and self-subversive. The system of taryag mitzvot which governs our lives under the pattern of chokhmat Elokim - the Divine wisdom - provides this anchorage and allows our independence to spur achievement and self-realization. Torah provides us with a regiment for moderating our cravings and longings, and furthermore, encouraging us to transform these instincts toward our religious growth. It liberates us from our would-be oppressor and channels its forces toward our own self-achievement.

It is in this spirit that we acclaim our freedom on Pesach, independence from our brutal human oppressor Pharaoh, but, at the same time, freedom which must self- contract in order to be sustained. In this respect, the seder contains a rich system of symbolism which encompasses this dichotomy. The symbols of freedom are unmistakable: the four kosot, haseiba, dipping our food, etc. It is interesting, however, to notice the variety of laws which regulate the manner of eating the korban pesach. One may only partake if he has registered in advance as part of a chavura - a group or party; participation in this meal must not be impulsive. Strict rules govern the mode of actual eating as well: it mustn't be cooked but instead roasted; no bones may be broken even while eating marrow; no food may be eaten outside the house; finally and most unexpectedly, all the meat must be consumed by daybreak, else it must be burnt. In truth, isolated reasons can be suggested for each individual regulation. However, in a broad sense, we must acknowledge that this meal, of all meals, stands alone as the most regulated and controlled. How ironic it is that on the very night we liberate ourselves, we act in a highly structured and governed manner. In fact, on the very night of the actual exodus, as part of the prohibition against exiting their houses, the Jews painted their door frames with the blood of the pesach sacrifice, outlining in blood, the walls and frames of their own "prisons." For although it is a night of liberty and sovereignty it is also one of discipline and constraint - a constraint which must form the nucleus of any meaningful or substantial freedom. Freedom to Transcend

As ovedei Hashem we seek to liberate ourselves from more than just our empirical, material selves which impair our religious development. If we are to appreciate and value liberty and strive to advance and exploit it to the best of our capabilities we must set our sights upon higher and more loftier varieties of freedom. While only the decadent and degenerate are enslaved by their passions, each human - be he a sinner or saint - finds himself imprisoned by his own mortality, his own inherent limitations. We all find ourselves charged with elevated missions, challenged with noble duty and entranced with the potential achievement which dwells within us. However, we lie incarcerated in these bony and brittle cages limited and confined by our own mortality. We are, by definition, flawed and imperfect, heroes to others but certainly not to our own inner selves. Our accomplishments, however remarkable or outstanding, bear the deficiencies and imperfections of their human architect. "Ma anu meh chayenu." Time silently but indefatigably marches on, swift and silent, leaving only its footprints to mock and sneer at us. Time scorns human achievement, stripping away centuries of achievement in the bat of an eyelash. How can we hope to surmount this obstacle, to triumph over this most basic of all adversaries? "Ve-ein lanu rak et ha-Torah ha- zot" - by offering us Torah u-mitzvot God extends to us a taste of eternity. Our method of being "davek" in the Melekh Malkhei Ha-melakhim, an esh okhela esh - a fire which consumes fire - our only method for actual attachment, is of course through capturing and absorbing Torah, conducting our life according to its principles. Kudsha Brikh Hu ve-oraita chad hu (13) - the will of God lies at the essence of Torah, and our bond with Torah and the mitzvot marks and measures our affiliation with Hashem himself. This devekkut or bonding with God - through the bridge of Torah - allows us to transcend our mortality. In a practical sense we are granted infinite life - olam ha-ba - and eternity. Additionally we are endowed with Divine vision and partake of Divine wisdom. Through Torah, both in a legal as well as scholarly sense, we shed our mortality, exchanging our human fetters for wings of angels so that unencumbered we may soar toward a rendezvous with God. This dream, which supersedes the common and the banal of the daily and the routine allows us to divest our human frame and with that frame its limitations, thereby transcending the limits of our own mortality. Through this, we defy time and mortality alike, or better yet, we marshal it for our own objectives. We escape the trap of mortality and elevate ourselves above the booming and buzzing masses. This, of course, reflects real, not imagined, freedom, one which in conduct is regulated but which in truth allows the adherent to surmount himself and enjoy the flight of freedom denied to all else. "Ein lekha ben chorin ela mi she-osek ba- Torah." Contemporary Struggle

Finally, we must realize that our flight toward freedom must also reflect our contemporary struggle. The gemara informs us "chayav adam lir'ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza mi- mitzrayim" (14) - a person must imagine as if he himself had been liberated from Egypt. The Rambam quotes this gemara with the addition of one notable word - "attah (now!)." The implication of this extra word is that we must envision as if we had just recently departed from Egypt. Indeed, we are many miles and centuries removed from Pharaoh and the pyramids, and injecting ourselves back into ancient Egypt, visualizing ourselves as slaves to the Egyptians, is a most difficult task and sometimes only minimally effective. However, we are all captives and find ourselves in some bondage or another. Our responsibilities this evening include adjusting this experience to the modern condition, locating the modern forms of enslavement, the modern Pharaohs and the modern pyramids we ceaselessly erect. We confront a faceless tyrant which does not thwart or outright interfere with our avodat Hashem but certainly delimits and confines our growth. Society, by preaching particular attitudes and viewpoints, regulates the terms of our religious development. Even those who assemble their values upon the tone and spirit of the Torah are inevitably exposed to differing perspectives. Surely, these Western values enhance and strengthen our Torah personalities. But to what extent do they also temper andmoderate our religious enterprise - both in scope and in intensity? To what extent do we subconsciously impose a ceiling to our own achievement and shy away from embracing new vistas of adherence? How impassioned and almost desperate are we in our search for genuine ahavat Hashem? Society's vassal, the media, does a wonderful job in causing a leveling effect, one which pre-establishes neat categories that all too often we obediently and submissively fit ourselves into. In our religious pursuit are we truly free, are there truly no limits to our advancement, to the heights we can scale, to the passion we can generate? Or do we go about our lives as benei Torah already conditioned as to what terms of religious growth are deemed acceptable, preprogrammed with social attitudes, our religious fate or the upper ceiling of our development having been pre-determined? Society, it is true, does not shackle us in chains but oftentimes fences us in as we are allotted certain permissible and tolerable limits of achievement, but precluded from establishing new frontiers, from stretching our religious ambitions to their fullest and most encompassing heights. Attaining freedom demands courage and tenacity and can only be achieved through trial and struggle. Pesach demands that we exert the necessary energy to inspect our condition and muster the boldness to smash any and every mold which shapes and inhibits our religious freedom. We must insure that if there is but one area in which total and unrestricted freedom is to be possessed it is in the plane of spiritual growth. We deserve no less!!

The night is one of immense challenge and of course uncommon and extraordinary opportunity. One the one hand we must cast our freedom within the framework of Torah u-mitzvot, one which checks the explosive energy of our passions which if unrestrained present a threatening menace to the very liberty we have earned. However, we must also fix our attention upon the transcendent qualities of freedom, recognizing in Torah the true liberation from our own mortal limitations. The midrash reports that on this night the nation glided to Eretz Yisrael upon ananei ha-kavod - Heavenly clouds of glory. We too this evening must learn to fly, free from the stifling and suffocating categories and classifications of society, free from our own defects and imperfections, free to soar toward God as we prompt and incite the ultimate redemption from all forms of spiritual enslavement.


(1) Most Talmudic commentators interpret reclining as a symbol of freedom and emancipation. The Rambam, in his Commentary to the Mishna (Pesachim 10:1), defines it as an aristocratic manner of dining. (2) Shemot 3:12. (3) Tehillim 19:11. (4) Devarim 6:5. (5) Avot 6:2. (6) Shemot 32:16. (7) The Book of Urizen Chapter XIII, line 350. (8) America, A Prophecy, line 98. (9) Shemot 19:16. (10) Shemot 20:16. (11) Shemot 32:25. (12) Shemot 32:18. (13) A familiar passage from the Zohar which describes the Torah as being the closest approximation to the will and essence of God. (14) Pesachim 116b.