Likkutei Sichos Parshas Yisro-True Freedom is “Slavery”

Parshas Yisro

The pleasure in submission-The novelty of Matan Torah & our complete surrender to G-d

(Likkutei Sichos Vol. 36 Sicha 2[1])

In Parshas Yisro, the most important and momentous event in world history in general, and Jewish history in particular, is retold. In this Parsha we are told of the revelation of G-d on Mount Sinai and the receiving of the Torah by the Jewish people. The revelation on Mount Sinai did not just represent the start of the Jewish religion but represented as well the selecting of the Jewish people as G-d’s chosen nation. The receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai was the climax and purpose of the Exodus from Egypt, as G-d had related to Moshe that he took the Jewish people out from Egypt for the sake of giving the Jewish people the Torah. One most peculiar event that occurred during the ceremony of the giving of the Torah is that G-d raised a mountain over the Jewish nation and threatened them to accept it, or else. This strange action on the part of G-d seems to question the entire validity of the ceremony, and as well begs for explanation as to why it was even necessary if the Jewish people had already excitingly agreed to accept the Torah prior. In this talk, the Rebbe explains the necessity behind placing the mountain over the Jewish people, and derives a most magnificent lesson behind our relationship with G-d, and the advantage of submissiveness and subjugation. The general perspective of the world is that slavery is the opposite of freedom, and the opposite of happiness. While this may be true in other respects, regarding a Jew’s service of G-d, the opposite is correct and that being a slave of G-d is what brings true freedom and happiness. From here we learn a new insight into the great pleasure that can be found in the act of submissiveness that cannot be found by one who is so-called free and independent.


Explorations of the Sicha:

1.      Why did G-d force a mountain over our heads if we were willing to accept the Torah regardless?

2.      What great merit did the Jewish people have that made them deserve the reward of getting redeemed from Egypt?

3.      Why does G-d want us to serve Him as a slave and not merely as a son?

4.      Can slavery be something good, and can it actually be the key to true freedom?


1. G-d forcing the mountain over our heads:

The Sages[2] state that at Matan Torah, Hashem placed a mountain [Har Kigigis] over our heads, threatening that it would become the place of our burial if we refused to accept the Torah. Based on this threat, the Gemara concludes that we did not truly accept the Torah until the times of Achashveirosh. This, however, begs the following question: In truth, we had already agreed to accept the Torah prior to the threat of the mountain. We had recited Naaseh Venishmah several days before the episode with the mountain.[3] Furthermore, the Rishonim[4] state a tradition that when we were told in Egypt that we would receive the Torah, we became exceedingly excited to the point that each individual Jew on his own began counting down the days until Matan Torah. This eventually became known as the Mitzvah of Sefiras Haomer.[5] Hence, what purpose did the threatening mountain serve and why was this step of coercion even necessary?

This can be understood through us first exploring a different issue, relating to what merited the Jewish people to be redeemed from Egypt to begin with.


The various answers in Mefarshim for why Hashem placed the mountain over us:

1.      Naaseh Vinishma came later: According to some Midrashim[6], we only recited Naaseh Vinishma after the episode with the mountain being placed over our heads, and hence there is no contradiction in this matter.

2.      So the Jewish people have an excuse to escape punishment for sinful behavior: Rashi[7] explains that Hashem placed the mountain over our heads in order to give us room to defend ourselves in case of sin, by claiming that we were forced into the relationship.

3.      To prevent us from backing out: Tosafus[8] writes that although the Jewish people had already exclaimed their willingness to receive the Torah, nonetheless, G-d placed the mountain over their heads due to the fear that they may back out after they saw the great fire which caused their souls to leave their bodies.

4.      Din of Annusa: The Rashba explains that the reason G-d placed the mountain over our heads was to force us into a relationship with Him in a way that He could never divorce us, even if we sin. The law is that a man who rapes a woman must marry her, if she agrees, and may never divorce her, and G-d likewise wanted to make his relationship with the Jewish people be permanent in a way that divorce is not an option, and so he can never choose in the future to pick another nation. Therefore, He placed a mountain over us to give us the Halachic status of an Annusa.

5.      The mountain is metaphoric to love: The Alter Rebbe[9] explains the meaning of this event, based on Chassidus, to refer not to an external threat of a physical mountain, but rather to a metaphorical description of our motivations and eager desire to accept the Torah at that time. The term Har [mountain] refers to a very high level of love of G-d. The term Gigis, which is a bucket, represents a passion that encompasses every fiber of our being. When the Jewish people left Egypt, they were going from the depths of physical suffering to the epitome of luxury, and they witnessed countless nature-breaking miracles performed by Hashem. At Kerias Yam Suf, every Jew experienced a revelation of G-dliness and prophecy greater than that experienced by any of the prophets of the later generations. We were the recipients of an unparalleled boundless show of love from Hashem. All this naturally aroused an indescribable passion and love for Hashem and His Torah, and it is therefore no wonder that we were willing and excited to receive it. This then is the meaning of being forced with a mountain over our heads to accept the Torah, as the loving actions of Hashem “forced” upon us such a strong love for Him that we were emotionally blinded in our decision to accept the Torah. Thus, the acceptance of the Torah at that time was tainted by the emotional state of mind we were in, and hence could not be considered a complete acceptance. 


Without negating the above explanations, the Rebbe in this talk offers a new insight and understanding into this mountain threat that was placed over us, as will be explained towards the end of the talk.


2. Under which basis did the Jewish people merit to be redeemed from Egypt:[10]

When G-d implored Moshe to accept the mission of helping redeem the Jewish people and proclaiming to them the redemption, Moshe pushed back by asking under what merit the Jewish people will be given this kindness of being redeemed. Moshe knew that the removal of an entire enslaved nation from within another nation will require nature breaking miracles in order so it succeed, and he therefore pressed G-d as to why G-d would do all these miracles for the Jewish people, and under what merit. G-d responded to Moshe that the Jewish people will be redeemed in the merit of receiving the Torah.[11] In the words of Midrash[12], “G-d responded to Moshe that he should be aware that in the merit of the Torah that they will accept in the future on this mountain, they will be redeemed.”

According to the above Midrash, it ends up that the Jewish people in truth did not have any current merits to reward them with a redemption from Egypt, and it was only due to merits that they would receive in the future that G-d decided to redeem them in a miraculous fashion. This is quite wondrous, as it is unclear as to how a matter which has not yet occurred can serve in the merit of the Jewish people? Seemingly, one can argue that in truth the Jewish people did not have any merits to have them deserve a miraculous redemption, and G-d was simply relating to Moshe that He is willing to do so as an investment to have the Jewish nation accept the Torah. Or, alternatively, one can say that the merit for which the Jewish people would leave Egypt, is the merit of the Torah and not the merit of the Jewish people. Meaning, that the Torah is so great that for its merit G-d will make a nation leave Egypt in order so they can accept it. Practically, however, from the wording of Rashi it seems unlike any of the above possibilities, as Rashi explicitly writes that the future acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people, is the merit that they have standing on their behalf to help them get redeemed.

Now, even if it was possible to argue that somehow G-d considers a person meritorious even for good deeds that he has yet to do, if G-d knows that he will do them in the future, it is not clear at all how receiving the Torah was considered a good deed of the Jewish people. After all, as we stated above, the sages teach us that G-d forced us to accept it by placing a mountain over our heads and threatened to bury us right there and then if we do not accept it, hence, how can us accepting the Torah under these circumstances be listed in our merit. Furthermore, the mere fact that G-d told Moshe that we would accept the Torah on the mountain in the future, would indeed force this to happen, and removed our freedom of choice of making our own decision in the matter. Hence, it is not clear at all how our acceptance of the Torah is even considered a merit, not to mention that even if it is considered a merit, it is a merit that has not yet occurred. For us to consider our future receiving of the Torah which was done out of coercion as a merit to the level deserving of reward of being redeemed from Egypt with miracles and wonders, is mind-boggling. How can the person get rewarded for something that he did not have a choice in doing?

Hence, due to all the above questions on the merit of receiving the Torah, we must conclude that the intent of “merit” mentioned in the Midrash does not necessarily refer to the actual receiving of the Torah in the future, but rather to something in the present that occurred prior to the Exodus while the Jewish people were still enslaved in Egypt. There must have been some merit that the Jewish people already had before the redemption which relates to the receiving of the Torah for which the Jewish people merited redemption. We will now explore what this was.

3. The anticipation of the Jewish people to receive the Torah:

As stated above, when the Jewish people were informed that they would be receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai at the end of 50 days from the Exodus, they became filled with excitement. Now, when did Moshe inform the Jewish people that they would eventually receive the Torah? The Rishonim[13] imply that Moshe informed the Jewish people that they would receive the Torah, at the same time that he informed them that they will be redeemed. This was the first mission that G-d gave Moshe prior to the start of the plagues, to gather all the elders of the Jewish people and tell them of the imminent redemption, and Moshe used that opportunity as well to tell them of the fact that they will eventually serve G-d on this mountain, and receive the Torah. Now, although the verse does not explicitly state that G-d told Moshe to tell the Jewish people of this matter of them receiving the Torah, there is no reason to assume that Moshe would hide this information from them until they were redeemed, and hence certainly he informed them of it right away, as write the Rishonim.

Now, as soon as Moshe informed the Jewish people of the above, they became filled with anticipation for the future redemption as well as for the receiving of the Torah, and actually began counting down the days. It is this anticipation that the Jewish people felt to receive the Torah that served in their merit to be redeemed from Egypt. Furthermore, independent of the actual anticipation to receive the Torah which served in their merit, this anticipation also revealed that the coercion of the mountain over their heads was not necessary at all and that they truly desired to receive the Torah with their own free will. Hence, their future acceptance of the Torah, as well as their current anticipation for it, gave them enough merits to be rewarded with the redemption, as this desire and anticipation was done with their own free will and not out of coercion.

Now, we need to explore what exactly the Jewish people were anticipating in their acceptance of the Torah, as after all, the Torah is filled with laws and statutes, 613 of them to be exact, and therefore why were the Jewish people so excited to take upon themselves new restrictions and laws.


What were the Jewish people anticipating exactly?

One of the greatest beliefs and rights discussed in today’s society is that of freedom and liberty. Monarchies have been overthrown, dictatorships have been quashed, all in the call of freedom. Societies have created a democratic form of government in which the people are the ones who hold their power and create their own laws and liberties based on a majority system. The concept of a monarchy or dictatorship in which a single person creates laws on behalf of the people is viewed with contempt and is certainly the opposite of freedom. Accordingly, it is not understood why the Jewish people would anticipate receiving the Torah, if the acceptance of the Torah means the acceptance of 613 biblical commands with myriads of rabbinical restrictions to follow, which would take total control of their lives. The Jewish people had just been through backbreaking slavery in Egypt for the past several generations and were finally anticipating getting redeemed. Hence, why on earth would they now excitingly anticipate entering a new form of slavery, to become servants of G-d and be bound and restricted with thousands of commands.


The answer to this question lies in the fact that Judaism is not just a dry religion of instructions and commands, but is a real relationship between man and G-d similar to that of husband and wife. The Jewish people contained a deep love and appreciation for G-d and anticipated entering a relationship with Him by Mount Sinai. Now, although even by a relationship between a husband and wife, no wife wants to hear her husband give her 613 commands that she must keep when they get married, nonetheless, the Jewish people anticipated these commands from G-d as in truth these commands are the forms in how the Jewish people can connect to G-d and form the relationship. The Jewish religion is not about controlling the person but rather about giving him the tools in how to make the relationship happen, and how he can bind and attach to G-d whom he loves. G-d gave us 613 ways of doing so, and we anticipated this capability of Dveikus with great fervor and passion.


We will now discuss a further and deeper point in this relationship between man and G-d, which is that man not only desires to attach to G-d, but desires to become nullified to Him and be submissive to Him like a slave to a master.


4. The Jewish people anticipated becoming slaves of G-d:

In the esoteric teachings, it is explained that the concept of the Exodus is not just an emancipation from physical slavery but is also a spiritual concept of emancipation from spiritual slavery. Spiritually, the concept of slavery refers to limitations and constraints. Just as a slave is controlled by his master and he cannot perform things that he desires that are above and beyond his master’s permission, so too, spiritually, a Jew contains mental and emotional limitations which prevent him from serving G-d above his capacity. The spiritual Exodus represents breaking through even the spiritual limitations. Meaning, that in addition to the need to break through the constraints of the body and animal soul which hinder one’s service of G-d, one also breaks through the constraints of his G-dly soul, which contains intellectual and emotional limitations. When a person serves G-d only based on his intellectual comprehension, or emotional development of love and fear, he is serving G-d in a very limited fashion being that his own intellect and emotions are limited. For this reason, the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya[14] that even a complete Tzadik who serves G-d with love and fear is not completely nullified to G-d, as he still retains an independent existence and serves G-d as an expression of his own desires and wills. His service is limited to his finite and limited reality. True Exodus means that one leaves even the constraints of holiness, of his G-dly soul, and that he serves G-d out of complete submission and surrender, making himself completely nullified to G-d without feeling any independent existence.

G-d took us out of Egypt, not just so we gain a relationship with him of love and fear, but so we can reach a level of complete surrender and nullification to Him. This was the true purpose of the event of the giving of the Torah, in which we became true slaves of G-d, as a slave does not have any independent existence other than his master and is completely nullified to his master. This is the completion of the true Exodus, where one is able to leave even his spiritual constraints and be completely nullified to G-d as a slave.

Based on this, we can further understand the great merit of the Jewish people in their anticipation to leave Egypt and accept the Torah. They did not simply anticipate entering a relationship with G-d and fulfilling the Torah and Mitzvos, and enjoying the love and passion that is involved in this relationship, but actually anticipated becoming surrendered and nullified to G-d, to becoming His slave. The Jewish people anticipated this new slavery even while they were still slaves in Egypt and comprehended the magnitude of slavery. This shows the great nullification that the Jewish people had towards G-d, and served them as a great merit to reward them with the redemption.

After the above explanation, what remains to be understood is why G-d needed to coerce us with the mountain to accept the Torah, if we are ready long anticipated becoming G-d slaves already in Egypt. This will be explored next.


A deeper look:

The Mitzvos were given to the Jewish people for the sake of them achieving connection to G-d, otherwise known as Dveikus. This is why a Mitzvah needs to be fulfilled out of love for G-d and out of a desire to attach to Him. A Mitzvah is meant to be the expression of one’s love. However, in truth there is something much deeper being fulfilled in the fulfillment of a Mitzvah, and that is a Jews nullification to G-d. Even stronger than the desire and yearning to attach to G-d in order to quench one’s love for Him, there is a desire to become nullified to Him, to be completely controlled by Him and be taken over, to give up any feeling of self and independence, and throw it completely to G-d. There exists an essential excitement and yearning of one’s soul to surrender himself completely to G-d. It is this deep desire of nullification and submission to G-d that a Jew has which was expressed in their anticipation to receive the Torah, and is what served in their merit.


A parable from marriage, and the husband-and-wife relationship:

Usually, a husband and wife enter into a marriage due to the dual benefits that they expect to receive. A husband desires someone whom he can love, spend time with, take care of his daily needs, and help him raise a family. A wife desires someone who can financially and emotionally support her, who can love her, whom she can raise a family with, and so on and so forth. Each spouse looks at it from the perspective of what they can gain in the marriage when they first enter it. There is one ingredient however, that is missing that will hopefully come with time, and that is selflessness and submissiveness. With time, the spouse should develop a selfless love for their spouse, and independent of their personal gains from the marriage, should desire the marriage for the sake of being able to make their spouse happy. In general, a husband should desire to give to his wife to make her happy, while a wife should desire to do the same for her husband. Taking this a little deeper, in Jewish and Hassidic thought it is explained that the positions of a husband and wife in the relationship are different and unique from each other. The husband is considered the giver [i.e. Mashpia], and is meant to give to his wife love, security, sensitivity, respect, and even gifts, while the wife is referred to as the receiver [i.e. Mikabel], and is to receive all the above. Now, this does not mean to say that the wife doesn’t do anything active in the relationship and simply serves as a recipient of the husband, but rather means to say that the wife’s job is to be the submissive partner, who desires and yearns to be taken under her husband’s wing and be nullified to him. While this view of a wife’s position in the marriage is contrary to the current view of feminism which demands equality and independency of a wife from her husband, in truth it is built-in within a women’s psyche. While a husband desires to give to his wife, a wife desires to be submissive to her husband and to be taken over by his loving control. It is a desire to be taken by someone, to become nullified to someone, to become united within him. It is this feminine desire of submissiveness that every single Jew has towards G-d. A Jew does not view the adherence to G-d’s commands as a matter of dry obedience, but views it as an expression of one’s essential desires to become submissive to G-d and to accomplish a unity with Him. A Jew desires to be nullified, to be submissive, to be taken over and controlled by G-d and completely surrender to Him. It was this great yearning that was expressed in our excitement in counting down the days until the giving of the Torah. We were excited to become submissive to G-d and nullified to Him, excited to become His slave and Him our master, and it is this excitement that served as our merit to redeem us from Egypt. This surrender and allowance of G-d to take total control of us, is not a matter of pain for the Jew, but on the contrary, achieves the greatest of pleasures, similar to the pleasure of a wife in surrendering to her husband in intimacy which achieves the greatest love, passion, and unity.  


5. The necessity for G-d to have placed a mountain over our heads:

The one remaining question is our original question regarding why G-d felt it was necessary to put a mountain over our heads. If in truth we already agreed to accept the Torah, and as per the clarifications above, desired to enter the relationship with G-d and be submissive and nullified to Him, then why ruin everything by forcing a mounted over our heads and make it appear like a coerced relationship?

The answer to this lies in the desire and yearning of the Jewish people to be surrendered to G-d. True surrender and submissiveness and nullification cannot be achieved when the person independently decides to do so, as since it is his decision that has brought him to his submissiveness, therefore he still retains an aspect of independence. True surrendering and submissiveness can only be achieved when it is not accomplished through the person’s initiative, or the person’s consent, and rather is initiated by the master and led by him. That is considered true control, and that is how a person can be truly surrendered to G-d. Accordingly, by G-d placing the mountain over our heads and forcing us into the surrendered relationship, he helped the Jewish people achieve complete nullification and submissiveness, which was their true desire and yearning. By G-d forcing the mountain over us, He brought us to an even higher level of servitude to Him, and took us a step higher from the level of resolve that we already independently had in Egypt to become His slave. While our initial anticipation and desire and willingness to surrender to G-d was certainly a great virtue, it contains the natural and inevitable restriction of being self-proposed, which consequently limits the true quality of the surrender. The only way to erase any and all feeling of independency to permit a complete surrender, was through G-d forcing us to become his slaves. This was the climax of the spiritual Exodus, in which we were able to leave the final limitations and constraints of our independent existence, and become 100% nullified to G-d. Reaching this level of surrender, however, only became possible after the Jewish people first willingly decided to become G-d’s slave and anticipated it, and therefore this final level of submission that was accomplished through G-d’s initiative of placing the mountain over our heads, also stood in our merit, as it is our initial anticipation that allowed it to occur.


Slavery to G-d is a Jews freedom-A Jew is only free when he accepts the yoke of the Torah:

The Mishneh in Pirkeiy Avos[15] says “Ein Ben Chorin Ela Mi Sheoseik Batorah/One is only considered free if he studies the Torah.” What is freedom? Today’s society boasts its rights of freedom and liberty to all. Giving each man the right and ability to practice his life in whichever way he sees fit. No more government limitations in where one can work, where he can send his kids to school, what he can eat, what he can wear, when he could be outside? What religion to practice. Every man is the cause for his own success or misfortune without government intervention or limitation. The above definition and understanding of freedom seems to be contradicted by religion. Does religion boast freedom or slavery? Isn’t it a form of government that controls and limits a man’s every move in terms of dress, walk, food, marriage, work? That’s what it sounds like! With 613 commands and tens of thousands of details within those commands, plus thousands of Rabbinical decrees, our lives are completely limited and controlled from the moment we awaken until we go to sleep. Every move must be scrutinized by Jewish law and verified whether it is allowed. This sounds like the opposite of freedom, i.e. slavery. Now, the Sages teach us that until we received the Torah we were not truly free. Upon leaving Egypt although we became free from slavery, we were not considered truly free until we received the Torah. Why is it that Judaism tells us that being limited in every capacity is defined as freedom?


The true definition of freedom:[16]

The answer to the above paradox lies within clarifying a mistaken conception regarding the concept of freedom. True freedom cannot be defined as the ability of man to do whatever he wants, as actions have consequences, and many actions that one may choose to do may prove to be to his detriment later on. In truth, specifically limitations can be the key to our freedom. True freedom is defined as the ability of a person to achieve its essential desires and goals, and maximize its potential of what will truly bring him happiness. The same way a person who is incarcerated views himself as not being free due to his limitations in being able to do what he desires, so too, the soul of an individual views itself as incarcerated and not free so long as it is unable to accomplish its true desires. The goalposts of freedom move together with one’s end goal, and therefore one who does an act which hinders him from reaching his end goal, is not doing an act of freedom but an act of slavery. For example, a person who truly desires to have a good marriage, cannot give himself the freedom to explode at his wife whenever he feels like it. To reach his goal of happiness, which is an enjoyable marriage, he must limit his freedoms. A husband who cannot control himself and constantly explodes in anger at his wife, is in truth found in his own personal prison, and does not view himself as being more free than the person who controls himself. His freedom is the cause of his own slavery. The same applies with a drug addict, he recognizes that his freedom to use drugs is the cause of his slavery and lack of true freedom in living a successful and happy life.

With this clarification, we can now understand why a Jew is not truly considered free unless he accepts the yoke of Torah, and becomes a slave to God. A Jew’s essential and true desire is to cleave to God and be nullified to Him, similar to a woman’s desire to be loved and taken over by Prince charming. This essential desire can only be achieved through Torah observance, and transgressing the Torah will only bring one further away from achieving his true desire of happiness. Hence, one who doesn’t control his inclination and transgresses Torah law becomes a slave to his own inclination, and delays his true freedom which can only be achieved when he cleaves to God.


[1] This Sicha is printed under Parshas Shemos

[2] Shabbos 88a

[3] Midrash Tanchuma; Tosafus 88a

[4] Ran, Pesachim 28a; Ittur, brought in Rashba 3:284

[5] Ran, ibid

[6] See Torah Or 98d “Chayav Inish Lebesumaei”; Midrash Tehillim 1:4; Mechilta Derashbi

[7] Shabbos 88a

[8] Shabbos 88a

[9] Torah Or, “Chayav Inish” p. 98b

[10] See Shemos 3:11; Shemos Raba 3:4; Rashi ibid

[11] See Shemos 3:12

[12] Shemos Raba 3:4

[13] See Shibulei Haleket 236 that “When the Jewish people were informed that they would be redeemed, he also informed them that they would receive the Torah 50 days after they left Egypt.”

[14] chapter 35

[15] 6:2

[16] See Letter Klali of Rebbe 1958 printed in Hagadah of SIE page 151

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