A few years ago, I sent out a series of weekly e-mails I called "e-Heschel", drawn from the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I am calling the next, similar project "e-Maggid." A maggid was a Chasidic teacher, often who traveled from place to place, who told stories or shared particular teachings. These weekly thoughts will be drawn from the classic Chasidic rebbes or inspired by them. If you are interested in subscribing and receiving these at the end of each week you can do so by clicking here. For this week's teaching, I turn to the parasha.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: The Torah says, "The tablets were made by God, and the writing on them was God's writing, engraved (Hebrew: chah-root) on the tablets" (Exodus 32:16). But don't read chah-root, "engraved on the tablets", rather chay-root, "freedom on the tablets" (Pirkei Avot 6:2).
How can the commandments be the definition of freedom? Isn't submitting to the commandments the very opposite of freedom?
The secret is found in the part of the Torah where this verse appears. It is at the moment when Moshe sees the Golden Calf.
The idol seems like an expression of the people's freedom, to decide how to meet their spiritual needs. But in fact the Golden Calf came out of their fear, and their impatience. It involved rebellion, and the pressure of a mob against Aharon.
When we make choices, are they always free? When we act out of fear, or simply to reduce our anxiety, we are not really free. When we decide something out of impatience, we might make any decision rather than a considered one. When we allow ourselves to follow a crowd, we surrender our freedom.
Torah can restore our freedom. It helps us concentrate and define what is in front of us It often puts us over against a crowd, a trend, or social pressure. For any dilemma or question, we can picture Torah as all the people who have studied the Torah of the matter before us. They stand at my side when I am afraid. To be freed of what stops us from being free -- that is Torah, freedom engraved on the tablets.