Let us ponder for a moment the words of the Mishnah:

.. And it is further stated: “The tablets were the work of G‑d and the writing was the writing of G‑d, ‘charus’ (engraved) on the tablets.” Do not read “charus” but “cherus,” (freedom) for there is no free man except one who occupies himself with the study of Torah. (Chapter 6 Mishnah 2)

This Mishnah presents a perplexing “klotz-kashe” which strangely enough is not noticed by all those who study Pirkei Avos.

[Sorry to say we have seen that Pirkei Avos is said very quickly and the reader’s do not pay attention to what they are reading, in order to understand it properly. Would that this week the Perek will be said slowly, so that proper attention will be given to every word and they will be able to ponder every Mishnah.]

The klotz kashe is how can the Mishnah teach, “... there is no free man except one who occupies himself with the study of Torah?” How is this possible, when at the time of the Exodus — before the Torah was given to the Jewish people — all of us became “free men?”

It may be said that Torah study existed before Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah at Sinai), as it says:

Avraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My decrees, and My laws. (Bereishis 26:5)

Similarly, the Gemara says:

Our ancestors were never left without the scholars’ council (yeshivah), (Yoma 28b)

and therefore they were considered free.

This, however, is not the case. First of all, the Mishnah stressed the word tablets, and only the Torah study after Matan Torah is referred to, when the tablets were given. Clearly, Torah study then was different from before.

Second, the Jewish people are divided into two general groups — Yissachar and Zevulun. Yissachar, the scholars, are completely devoted to study, and Zevulun, the business people, spend the major part of their time dealing with merchandise and set certain times for study. They cannot be completely devoted to study — and are not “osek” (involved) in study. Even more so, there are, and always were, Jews who were completely ignorant of Torah study, comprising the group of Am-Haaretz.

Now these merchants and simple Jews also left Egypt and became ‘free’ and they celebrate the holiday of freedom on Pesach with equal fervor and zealousness. So, what can the Mishnah mean when it says, “... there is no free man except one who occupies himself with the study of Torah.” Are not the others, who are not completely engrossed in Torah, also free?

Another question crops up here. The Shalah discusses the rule in Torah, that wherever the Talmud says, “Do not read,” it intends to indicate that the assumed way of reading is either problematic or redundant. In the case of: “Do not read ‘your children,’ but, ‘your builders,’” the word ‘children’ is redundant. However, we see nothing wrong with the word “cherus” (engraved). In fact, the Torah had to say engraved so that we would know that the Ten commandments were not just written on the tablets, but that they were engraved in the stone! So what could the Mishnah mean when it says, “Do not read”?

The explanation is that when the Mishnah speaks of freedom it uses the term “ben chorin” — which means that the essential existence of this person is freedom — not just the fact that he was liberated from bondage. Similarly, in Torah we use the term Ben Torah — “a Torah Jew” — not just someone who studies, but one who is steeped in Torah, so that it is his whole being. Or a Ben Olam Habah — not only one who has a place in the World To Come — but his whole being and existence is devoted only to matters of the World To Come.

Yet, all Jews were liberated from bondage, and celebrate the season of our freedom because they are truly free. However, they are still not on the level of ben chorin. Their essence is not yet freedom.

This needs further elucidation. In searching for the consummate free man whose essence is freedom our first thought is: “There is no free man ...,” for everyone is beholden to someone or something. Do you have to look far? Everyone is “enslaved” to their physical needs, they cannot exist without eating, drinking and sleeping. The Gemara describes it thus:

He who says, “I take an oath not to sleep for three days,” is to be flogged and he may sleep forthwith. [Since it is impossible to go three days without sleep.] (Sukkah 53a)

So our Mishnah concludes, “except, one who occupies himself with the study of Torah.” We are not referring to one who just learns Torah — but one whose whole occupation, his driving passion, his existence and essence, is only Torah.

Being that Torah is his whole existence, then even all his physical acts, eating, drinking, sleeping, do not take an independent existence. Instead they become part of his Torah life — “Know Him in all your ways.” (Mishlei 3:6) He is not beholden to these needs, for they are absorbed in his Divine service to his Maker — he is truly a ben chorin — free of all external obligation.

An analogy to this may be drawn from the prohibition of carrying in the Laws of Shabbos. The Rambam writes:

If one transfers (carries) anything from a private domain to a public domain ... he is not liable unless the quantity he transfers is of some use. Minimum quantities are as follows: ... food ... vessels ... glowing coal ... flame.... If one transfers less than the minimum quantity, he is exempt, even if he transfers it in a vessel, because the vessel is a mere accessory for the transfer of the contents, since his intention was to transfer the contents, not the vessel, and the contents are less than the required minimum amount. (Rambam, Laws of Shabbos ch. 18:1-28)

In our case, eating, drinking and the other physical needs are not independently important, for they are subservient to his Torah study. Just as the vessel is negligible relative to the things it carries.

It is from the word “charus,” engraved on the tablets, that we learn of this power. Remember the verse said: “The tablets were the work of G‑d, and the writing was the writing of G‑d.” At first glance this would seem to indicate that even on the stone tablets engraved words may be called writing! [So the proposed reading is problematic!] Then the verse changes terms and says: “Charus — engraved — on the tablets.” Here is the new point: “Do not read charus but cherus — freedom.” From this we learn that “... there is no free man except one who occupies himself with the study of Torah.”

We must also remember another rule, that the system of “Do not read” does not eliminate the plain meaning, it only adds so that both meanings apply. What does it mean here?

When one is occupied with the study of Torah so that Torah becomes his existence then he has reached the state of “engraved.” Written letters are an added material on the surface of the page or tablet. Engraved letters add nothing on the surface; they are formed intrinsically in the stone and are one and the same being. When Torah study is engraved, he becomes a ben chorin; read not “engraved” but [also] “free.”

For this reason this state could be attained only after Matan Torah. Before Sinai there was Torah, but there was also the decree:

Those who are below shall not ascend to those on high, and those who are on high shall not descend to those that are below. (Shmos Rabbah 12:3)

It was simply not feasible that Torah should penetrate so deeply to the total existence of the person, like engraved letters. Only Matan Torah could initiate this supreme state, because the abovementioned decree was removed and the power of the spiritual could descend and truly influence the physical.

* * *

Just as we see the important quality of “one who occupies himself with the study of Torah,” there are also those who “occupy themselves with the needs of the community.” Actually the latter is even more important — as the Shulchan Aruch rules:

One whose Torah is his occupation — must interrupt his study to say the Shema, while one who is involved in community needs is free from Shema. (Orach Chaim 106)

For this reason, on every Shabbos we recite a blessing: “May He who blessed ... bless ... all those who occupy themselves faithfully with communal affairs.” (Siddur, Mussaf Shabbos)

This brings to mind all the emissaries who are involved in the communal affairs, sent out by the Previous Rebbe. They truly have all the qualities of being faithfully occupied in communal affairs — including the qualities of Torah.

Those who claim they are completely occupied in Torah and refuse to undertake spreading Torah and Yiddishkeit — seek only to calm their conscience — they just don’t want to do the important work. Even Rashbi’s Torah had to be interrupted to make a Sukkah or Lulav or any mitzvah which could not be performed by another!

Practice is the essence — and everyone should be “occupied with Torah and communal affairs” and very soon may the prophecy be fulfilled: “A great company shall return there.” (Yirmeyahu 31:7)

With the true and complete redemption through our righteous Mashiach — speedily and truly in our days.