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Lessons on Freedom from the Torah Part III

02/05/2023 11:47:42 PM


Rabbi Moshe Rudin

We have seen in this series that the Exodus narrative is the world’s greatest tool of personal freedom and empowerment.  Part one explored the necessity of freedom as a precondition of being who we truly are.  In part two, we explored the need to master time as the second precondition for freedom.  

In today’s lesson, we encounter one of the central Mitzvot of Judaism and delve into its meaning for us.

On the very day that Israel left Egypt, G-d delivers a strange commandment:

וְהָיָה֩ לְךָ֨ לְא֜וֹת עַל־יָדְךָ֗ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן֙ בֵּ֣ין עֵינֶ֔יךָ לְמַ֗עַן תִּהְיֶ֛ה תּוֹרַ֥ת יְהֹוָ֖ה בְּפִ֑יךָ כִּ֚י בְּיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֔ה הוֹצִֽאֲךָ֥ יְהֹוָ֖ה מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

“And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead —in order that the Teaching of יהוה may be in your mouth—that with a mighty hand יהוה freed you from Egypt.

-Exodus 13:9

In the symbolism of the Torah, the hand is adjacent to the heart, the locus of feeling, while the forehead, adjacent to the brain, is the locus of thought.  Both the heart and the mind are to be directed toward the freedom granted by G-d.

 This teaching is so central to Judaism that we actually embody it with an artifact- the Tefillin.  These small leather boxes contain small scrolls of passage above as well as three other similar passages in the Torah.  Before morning prayers, one box is bound by a leather strap on the left arm near the heart while the other is placed on the forehead and held by another strap.  


Being free means being free from every form of slavery.  External slavery is when a power outside of ourselves imposes upon our personal freedom.  But there is another slavery, more invasive and more pervasive: slavery to one’s own feelings and to one’s own thoughts.

Giving in to urges, addictions and impulses makes them immeasurably stronger. The Talmud says that the evil urge begins like a fragile thread but becomes inescapable chains.   No one can control a sudden feeling, a burst of anger or urge of passion.  These are hardwired into our nature.  But the lesson of the Tefillin is that we can refuse to submit.  We are taught that our hearts are some sort of holy of holies whose call we must obey or risk the cardinal sin of “not being true to ourselves.”  But the self is more than a collection of urges, fantasies or impulses.  The self is the vessel through which our soul achieves its highest potential of growth.  Saying no to those actions or impulses that oppose our values and our will to live them is just as essential to growth as listening to those feelings that move us toward our true selves.  The lesson of the Tefillin is that freedom is not blindly obeying the slavery of our feelings but of what we know is right.

The Tefillin of the mind similarly teaches slavery can even twist and distort our thoughts.  Thoughts can free us but, when darkened by pain or prejudice they can imprison us.  Perhaps that is why Jewish learning focuses on the dialectical analysis of the Talmud which develops our ability to think deeply and critically, to be self-aware and self-critical, is so deeply ingrained in our ethos.

Freedom is not a right granted but a spiritual pinnacle to be achieved.  In the final part of this series we will look at the final steps of the ladder to freedom and discover what awaits us at the very top rung.

Shabbat shalom!

Wed, April 17 2024 9 Nisan 5784