Chains of Freedom

Irreligious Life: Less Free and Happy


Moshe Ben-Chaim



“Duties of the Heart” (Chovas HaLevavos) authored by Rabbi Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda, is a great work and a mandatory study. From his introduction, we are awakened to our severely overlooked, profound Torah obligations; our grave errors in thought and values; and an acute critique of what we neglect in what we owe God and ourselves. I will quote one part of his introduction, as an introduction to this week’s article on Esav and our base emotions.


“From what I have read of the conduct of our Early Masters and from what has come down to us from their sayings, I have found that they were more enthusiastic – and concentrated their efforts more – in [the fulfillment] of their own [actual] duties than in [developing] new applications of legal rulings or in resolving bizarre and complex hypothetical questions. They would concentrate on the general principles of the law and would clarify what is forbidden and what is permitted; then they would become immersed and absorbed in the refinement of their conduct.”


Rabbi Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda understood from studying Torah giants, that ethical and intellectual perfection must take priority over the analysis of theoretical areas. We must achieve the true concepts of God as far as man can, and we must study the words of Moses and the prophets for ethical and moral direction, as Rabbi Bachya cites in many instances. We must then enact these lessons. At the conclusion of his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides also makes similar remarks:


“…the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired - as far as this is possible for man - the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.”


The problem, is what Maimonides states a few sentences earlier:


“The third kind of perfection is more closely connected with man himself than the second perfection. It includes moral perfection, the highest degree of excellency in man’s character. Most of the precepts aim at producing this perfection; but even this kind is only a preparation for another perfection, and is not sought for its own sake. For all moral principles concern the relation of man to his neighbor; the perfection of man’s moral principles is, as it were, given to man for the benefit of mankind. Imagine a person being alone, and having no connection whatever with any other person, all his good moral principles are at rest, they are not required, and give man no perfection whatever. These principles are only necessary and useful when man comes in contact with others.

The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man: the possession of the highest, intellectual faculties: the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God.”

“…the moral principles which benefit all people in their social intercourse with each other, do not constitute the ultimate aim of man.”


Maimonides states that intellectual perfection surpasses moral perfection. How then can he say the reverse in his first quote above? Read it again:


“…the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired - as far as this is possible for man - the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.”


Maimonides remains true to his highest evaluation of intellectual perfection: it is supreme over moral perfection. The knowledge of God and how He relates to His creatures is our objective. Yet, true human “conviction” in the value of God’s attributes comes only when we express these values in actions. Theoretical agreement with God’s attributes of kindness, justice, charity and righteousness is insufficient, if we do not “live” by these values. Thus, Maimonides derives from the verse’s conclusion[1] that we must enact the intellectual truths, in our moral lives. This enactment is the barometer of our convictions in intellectual truths. So although truths about God reign supreme over our perfection of character, our character is still essential for measuring our conviction in those truths. Maimonides makes it clear: “Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness”. Knowledge is supreme. Man’s expression must then follow.



Application to Toldot

Part of this study includes this week’s Torah portion and central personality, Esav the wicked. A friend directed me to this Talmudic portion addressing Esav:


“Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘Five sins did that wicked one [Esav] transgress on that day [of Abraham’s death]: he [Esav] had intercourse with a betrothed woman, he murdered a soul, he denied God, he denied Resurrection of the Dead, and he despised the birthright’.” (Tal. Baba Basra 16b)


We wonder what lessons Rabbi Yochanan teaches, but we have many points that will lead us along. He tells us these sins were performed when Abraham died. What is the connection? Why did Esav have intercourse with a ‘‘betrothed woman? Why not a married woman? And what propelled him to sin in these other areas? Is there a common denominator among all five sins?



Corrupt Ideas: Corrupt Actions

Why didn’t Esav sin until this day? Well, we know it is because Abraham had not yet died. But what effect did Abraham’s death have on Esav? Why was ‘his’ death different than Isaac’s death? Or, did it merely preempt Isaac’s death, and both deaths would have caused similar violations by Esav?

When studying Esav, we see his great need for authoritative approval. He shrieked bitterly when he learned that his father Isaac blessed Jacob his twin, his rival, forfeiting his own blessing. That blessing was a stamp of approval, for which he so desperately longed. We also learn from Rashi that Esav used to ask his father how to tithe: he sought approval for his ethical activities.

Now, the patriarch Abraham was an image of righteousness. To obtain his approval, Esav had to follow his example. But the motivation to adhere to this lifestyle in Esav’s mind was not only approval, but also the thought of some good Esav would obtain. Most important, is that we recognize that this ‘good’ was in Esav’s terms…


Esav valued his Earthly existence. He saw Abraham as an old man still walking the Earth. Perhaps, Abraham’s death shattered Esav’s value of a righteous life: “If Abraham dies, of what good is all his righteous acts?” Esav thought.  Immediately, Esav committed these five sins. He saw no further value in Abraham’s example.

But Abraham’s death was not a ‘cause’ per se for all of Esav’s sins on that day. No, his death was a removal of a “lid” that kept Esav’s powerful urges at bay all these years.

Esav possessed his tremendous urges from the womb, as did Jacob. The Rabbis teach the two sons of Isaac were identical until Abraham’s death. But once Abraham died, Esav deviated. Jacob continued to channel his strengths to pondering God and internal perfection, while Esav satisfied his lusts. Upon Abraham’s death, those urges – seen even when in the womb as he struggled with Jacob – now had justification: “Abraham lived so perfectly, and he dies at the end? Then it’s all worthless!” This was Esav’s thinking. Perhaps also, Abraham was someone Esav attached to more than Isaac, as a grandfather does not carry the disciplinarian role. Esav’s attachment to Abraham was pure, without the negative, parental associations.



Sin Begets Sin

Due to his corrupt ethics and philosophy, Abraham’s death presented Esav with a corrupt conclusion: there is no reward. He denied resurrection. That metaphysical reward is not the reward that registers on a lustful personality. Esav’s denial of that true reward means that he denied God, the exclusive granter of reward. Esav then threw himself unrestrained into satisfying his Earthly desires. He destroyed himself.

His other base drives then gushed forward; he then killed a soul. Why? This is because that soul as opposed to others must have impeded his desires. Esav saw himself as the center of the universe, where he must not be restricted, or controlled by another. He then murdered that soul to obtain his wishes. The ego is quite strong, but it was much stronger with Esav, as rabbi Yochanan said, “Five sins did THAT wicked one sin on that day”. Esav possessed unique qualities. Murder is an act of resolving a competitive struggle. And at the root of all competition is the ego. This was one base drive he satisfied that day.

Esav also had intercourse wit a betrothed woman. I believe he sought this type of woman for a psychological motive, similar to murder. One who is betrothed represented to Esav a woman “off limits”. “Someone else has rights to her, and not I?” Esav thought. Again, his ego could not tolerate any restriction, and certainly not being second to another human personality…therefore he took her “first”. Had she been married, his sexual act would not be as impacting as being the first to lie with her, and in essence, ruining it for the other man. He beat out the groom. 

He also despised the birthright, as this was the entitlement to serve God. Again, the ego in full form does not accept any subservience. Service to any being is not accepted, even to God. Perhaps this too contributed to his denial of God.


One error caused Esav to outpour all his base emotions; sexual drives, competition, aggression, rebellion, and denial of God. These are man’s base drives, and this explains why Esav committed all of these sins at once: these sins embody man’s dominant instincts. So once the lid was lifted from his emotions, the most dominant drives expressed themselves. And at the root, is ego. Man’s most primary instinctual forces cause these five sins.

“The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God”. We must come away with newfound humility, and the deep recognition that the Torah’s restraints are for our good. If we combat our rebelliousness of certain Torah laws with new knowledge behind what we initially found restraining, we have just made a fantastic, first step.



Chains of Freedom

We learn that the unchained lifestyle leads to our destruction. In fact, the Rabbis refer to the Torah as “Ole malchus shamayim”, “The yoke of the kingdom of heaven”. The yoke is a restraint on our urges and actions. Following this restrained lifestyle where Torah study is first and foremost, we arrive at truths concerning what the happiest and best life is. We study human nature and see where different paths lead, before we embark on a course. We decide all moves based on reason. With a restrained and well-charted plan, we live tranquil lives. We control when and where our energies are spent. Less friction is created with others, as we do not value petty matters, and we think before we talk. With a governing system, we are led to greater knowledge, and it is this knowledge that truly frees us: freed to make more decisions, because we know more choices. And these decisions are more informed, so we benefit, having thought through all possible scenarios that might result from any number of choices.

It is the ignorant one who feels that restraint limits him. The irreligious person ‘feels’ free, as nothing impedes his actions. But freedom to “do”, does not equate to the ability to select “any” possibility…or doing what is “best”. Yes, the irreligious person can do and say anything, at anytime. But with little knowledge, he or she has few choices. For man cannot choose, that which he is unaware of. Conversely, the truly free person is the one who has the greatest knowledge, enabling greater choices, and wiser options. And the greatest knowledge must come from the Creator of all knowledge.


Rabbi Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda directs us to reflect on many profound realizations. I truly feel fortunate to have read his words. I urge all to purchase a copy of Duties of the Heart. Read it, including his amazing introduction. You will feel as fortunate as I that you did. His lessons will free you to select from increased options, and make more informed choices.





[1] “That I am the Lord which exercise loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth.” (Jeremiah 9:23)