Oh, freedom!

Ki Tissa - Oh Freedom!
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Parashah Ki Tissa: Exodus 30:11-34:35

"And the tablets were the work of G!d…" (Exodus 32:16)

This week, the sages play upon a single word to discover – or is it release?! – meaning from the passage at hand. But first of all, the question must be, what is the question they are struggling with?

The question at hand is rarely stated explicitly; sometimes it is obvious, and more often it is far more difficult to discern. I will begin with my best guess as to what the question is, then share their attempts to resolve and illuminate the passage, and finally share my own thoughts about a very different resolution of the same problem.

The problem revolves around the Hebrew word haruth, which means something like "etched" or, as Rashi tells us, "cut into." That the Sages don’t like this word is clear, but what is their problem?

It helps to recall the setting: Moses is about to descend from Mt. Sinai with these first set of tablets, where he will discover the people dancing in front of the Golden Calf, and it is these tablets, "haruth" by the hand of G!d, that he will destroy.

So nu? Shouldn’t the fact of the tablets’ demise be more important than how they were created?

I think the problem has to do with the problem with "graven images," forbidden to us. Can the Holy One be in the business of making graven images? Or would we, given something engraved by G!d, come to worship it as an idol?

This is, I think, the problem. Now let’s see how the Sages solve it. Listen:

R. Joshua b. Levi said: A heavenly voice issues from Mount Horeb every day, saying: ‘Woe unto those creatures who neglect the study of the Torah.’ For whosoever studies not the Law continually is rebuked by God; as it says, and the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven (haruth) upon the tablets (Exo. 32:16). What is the meaning of haruth?  This was discussed by R. Judah, R. Jeremiah, and the Sages.

R. Judah said: Read not haruth (graven), but heyruth (free) from captivity. R. Nehemiah opined that it means free from the Angel of Death; whilst the Sages were of the opinion that it means free from suffering.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XLI:7

The Sages change "engraved" to "freed from," and then speculate about what it is that Torah frees us from: is it from captivity, like the slavery of Egypt? Or is it freedom from death, as in meriting a place in either Olam Haba, the World to Come, or at the coming of the Messiah, may it be swift and in our day? Or does it simply mean that the Torah frees us from suffering?

How can Torah free us from captivity? There is an epithet – meaning, another name for – Jews who have lost touch with their Judaism: they are referred to as the "captive children of Israel." In other words, they have been "captured" by the world, and must be "freed" from that captivity. In that sense, studying Torah indeed frees us from captivity.

Does Torah free us from death? The danger to answering "yes" to this is that it could be taken to imply that the penalty for not studying Torah is death. The only way that a "yes" to this question makes sense to me is that Torah is one of many ways to achieve a personal connection with G!d, and that any such connection – by any means, whether by Torah or not – revives our spirits.

As for Torah freeing us from suffering, alas, there are far too many today who, G!d-forbid, suffer, whether they are students of Torah or not. But I can tell you that in those moments in which I am able to immerse myself in the study of Torah, for those sweet moments of time, whatever suffering I am enduring lifts. So, in a sense, Torah can free us from suffering.

Now, as I told you, I think there is another meaning to the "freedom" of the creation of the tablets. Think about the process by which a sculptor creates: we are told, especially in the case of truly talented artists, that they take a block of stone, clay, or whatever, and simply “remove” what does not belong to the finished work. They “free” or “liberate” the work from its encasing media. So, in a sense, G!d “freed” the words from their encasing stone. But I think we can take it even deeper.

We have been taught, rightly so, that the words of Torah are living, alive for us this day. Every time we study Torah, we are given the chance to learn something new, something that never was there for us before. It is in this sense that the Torah itself must be free of the rigid constraints we might, in error, attempt to place upon it. Indeed, we must free those living words from a fixed, stone-like interpretation, and breathe life to them with our actions so that we – and they – can be alive to the world around us.

This is, for me, one more way in which G!d created words of Torah by "freedom," not "engraving." May we each be blessed with many opportunities each day to see how those words can live in our lives, and breathe life into others.

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