Parshat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)
Efrat, Israel – “When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath unto the Lord” (Lev. 25:2).
What does it mean to be free?
The first part of this week’s portion, Behar, begins with the laws of Shemitah, ordaining that every seventh year the land must rest for a complete year. We plant and sow and harvest the fields for six years, but during the seventh, the land must lie fallow, its fruits available to all as if they were ownerless… In effect, the land is actually returning to itself, to a kind of primordial state, similar to the seventh day of the week when man as creative spirit returns to himself, ceases from creating and re-creating and takes a back seat to G-d as the sole Creator of the universe.
The Torah then tells us that at the end of seven such sabbaths, the 50th year is declared a “jubilee” year. During this time, slaves are freed even if they don’t want to be freed and property sold in the past 50 years is returned to the original owners, i.e. the descendants of those families who inherited portions when Joshua conquered and divided the land into tribal possessions.
“And you shall hallow the 50th year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee to you, and you shall return every man unto his family” (Lev. 25:10)
The Hebrew word used in the above cited Biblical verse “liberty” is dror, a word so rare in the Pentateuch that it appears but one other time, as the compound word “mor-dror,” meaning “flowing or pure myrrh,” an ingredient in the incense that was presented in the Sanctuary (Exodus 30:23), an obvious reference to the sweet succulence of freedom.
The Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana, 9b, tells us that the word dror means freedom. R. Yehuda connects it linguistically with the word for dwelling the Hebrew dar or gar: “What is the significance of the word dror? The freedom of one who dwells (medayyer) where he likes and can carry on trade in the whole country.” Rashi (loc. cit.) phrases it, “a person who can live wherever he wants to.”
Dror is also the Hebrew word for sparrow, and according to the Torah Temimah compilation (Rabbi Baruch Epstein 1860- 1942), citing from Tractate Betza 24a, the reason why a sparrow is called dror is because it accepts no authority or direction, and even “…in the house it lives like in the field,” flying, dodging, doing whatever it wants to do. Thus, this bird more than any other, symbolizes freedom. And because it doesn’t fly south (or north, east or west) for the winter, it controls the skies rather than the skies controlling it.
The Talmud understands that the use of the word dror in the context of proclaiming “liberty” casts light on the true nature of liberty. In other words, a truly free person can live wherever he wants, and earn his living anywhere as well. In assessing the different rungs of the liberty ladder, we see that a person may live in Beverly Hills, but if he really wants to live in Efrat, and cannot arrange to do so, then he isn’t yet free. On the other hand, someone else may be hovering just above the poverty level in Jerusalem, but he may be freer than his friend in California, since the individual in Jerusalem is precisely where he truly wishes to be.
Freedom means mobility, physical as well as psychological, and all the laws of the seventh year of the jubilee year are intended to return that freedom of mobility to every citizen of Israel. Moreover, the Jubilee year frees everyone from slavery, even against his/her will. And debts are cancelled as well: “At the end of seven years you shall make a release… every creditor shall release that which he lent to this neighbor…” (Deut. 15:1-2). Just as the land returns to itself, so does a slave and so does a debtor, since a person in debt is not complete, and so not free.
The jubilee year acknowledges that the passage of time can play havoc on people’s lives, bringing them to the brink of despair. The Bible gives them the opportunity to have their debts rescinded, their anchored homesteads returned; the Jubilee puts them back on their feet and back on their land!
And lest we mistakenly equate freedom with aimless wandering, the Jubilee teaches that only someone who has roots can truly feel free; once those roots are waiting for you, you can travel the world and still retain a sense of belonging and existential comfort.
In a similar vein, if we manage to hold on to our living tradition of Torah, we truly remain free, even as free as the dror, and no authority can ever limit our spirit. Jews suffer as Jews when circumstances force us to ‘sell’ off our own tradition, so that we end up languishing as hired hands in the spiritual fields of others, forgetting where we came from, so that we become spiritually homeless, without a real anchor in history, anchor in psyche. There is a magnificent midrash that when the Almighty first created the world, the dove – representing the bird kingdom – came with a complaint. “We birds are so small and puny, the other larger animals can easily overtake and overwhelm us.” The Almighty accepted the complaint, and fashioned wings for the birds. The following day, the dove returned, even more disgruntled than before. “Yesterday we birds were puny, but we were also light and nimble, now we have these two heavy appendages, which weigh us down and severely limit our mobility.” G-d laughed, and taught the dove how to use the wings; he explained that when used properly, they grant the birds, the power and ability to soar far above the other animals, to fly close to the Almighty Himself.” It is the gift of rootedness, – in history, in traditions and in homestead – which enables the individual to wander the globe and still have a home!
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