Shabbat Shalom: Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin 

Efrat, Israel –  “And you shall count for yourselves seven cycles of Sabbatical years, seven years, seven times… forty-nine years… you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants; it shall be the Jubilee year for you.” (Leviticus 25:8-10)

This commandment to count seven cycles of Sabbatical years leading up to the 50th Jubilee year of proclaiming freedom throughout the land, is clearly reminiscent of the biblical commands we read last week (Parshat Emor): “Count for yourselves [from the day of your bringing the barley ‘omer wave offering] seven complete weeks… you shall count fifty days…” from the day after our exodus from Egypt until the Festival of the first fruits (bikkurim), the festival commemorating the Revelation of God’s Torah at Sinai (Lev. 23:15-17).

What is the significance of this striking parallelism between the counting of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot and the counting of the seven sabbatical years leading up to the Jubilee year? What is the true message behind the daily count of sefirat ha’omer, the period which we are currently marking?

There are three words which express the concept of freedom: hofesh, dror and herut. Hofesh appears in the Book of Exodus (21:2) in the context of the Hebrew slave leaving the homestead of his owner; at the end of his sixth year of employ he becomes (hofshi hinam), “completely free,” without any obligation whatsoever to his former master.

The second word, dror, has just been cited in our present reading of Behar, in which “freedom” (dror) is to be proclaimed throughout the land on the advent of the Jubilee year.

But the Festival of Passover, which celebrates our exodus from Egyptian servitude, is referred to by our Sages as zman herutenu, the time of our herut – a non-biblical word with Aramaic roots that connotes freedom. Why do our Sages pass over the two biblical Hebrew words hofesh and dror in describing our Festival of Freedom in favor of herut?

In his illuminating study Escape from Freedom, the philosopher and political theorist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) distinguishes between freedom from something and freedom for something. The former—the mere ridding oneself of duties and obligations—will, at best, produce a monotonous existence of boredom, aimlessness, and sometimes even depression; at worst, it will lead to alcohol and drug addiction, wild licentiousness and even criminal acts of depravity.  Many societies would rather succumb to a totalitarian regime of enslavement rather than risk the challenges of the responsibility of freedom.

It is from this vantage point that Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), author of From Death-Camp to Existentialism and founder of the branch of psychoanalysis which he calls “logotherapy,” insists that the most essential human drive is not a search for pleasure, as Freud would maintain, or a search for power, as Adler and Jung suggest. Rather, it is the search for meaning, the human need to carve out a life of significance and worthwhile purpose. Freedom from enslavement must be linked indelibly with the belief of the individual that he/she is empowered to forge for him/herself a life dedicated to an important goal and purpose.

Hence, our Bible begins with the creation of the world, positing that every human being is created “in the image of God,” with a portion of the Lord on High within the very essence of his/her being,” so that he/she becomes commanded (and thereby empowered) to “develop the earth and preserve it,” to “perfect our imperfect world in the Kingship of the Divine” (Gen. 1:27; 2:7, 15 and the Aleinu prayer).

By reliving God’s primordial week of creation during our human weekly cycle of “working the world” for six days and resting in God’s presence on the seventh, we hopefully rekindle our task to perfect the world as God’s partners every single week! And hofesh in this context is our freedom of choice not to do whatever we wish but rather to choose good over evil, God over Satan, creation over destruction, eternal life in the generations we fostered, dedicated to Go-liness over instant death after an existence spent in futile pursuit of vanity and emptiness.

The word dror is used to express the period of human perfection, redemption (ge’ula), described in our Jubilee year, when all slaves will be freed, when everyone’s land will provide sufficient produce for all, when all debts will be rescinded, when everyone will be returned to their ancestral homestead, when all the needy of the world will be sustained by their communities. Dror is the purpose for which Israel and humanity was created; the society and world which Israel and humanity must recreate in God’s loving partners.

And do our Sages refer to the time of our liberation from Egyptian enslavement as herut, which derives from the Hebrew ahrayut, responsibility: the path-way toward the final accomplishment of universal dror  , the responsibility of freedom for, the responsibility of accepting the formidable task of partnership with the Divine, the responsibility of protecting our siblings (ahim) unfrt Hof,, the responsibility of protecting every stranger (aher) who is also our sibling under God, the responsibility of going first and saying “aharai” (after me), and the responsibility of bringing the world to its aharit hayamim, the final stage of redemption, the Messianic Age.

And so, as soon as we became free, we started to count; only for a free person does every day count, only for a free person is every day fraught with infinite possibilities of productivity and meaning. We count until we receive our Torah, which is our blueprint for the creation of a perfected world. And you will note that although the Bible commands that we count 50 days – we stop at 49. That is also why the Festival is called Shavuot – because we are still a work-in-progress, we have not yet reached the goal of the Messianic Age, we still await the Messiah, we are still in the Process, not yet in the Attainment, the era of Redemption. And perhaps that is what it means to be human, to be constantly striving – and growing, and improving. A great Sage once said, “Pity the man who has achieved his ideal; he has no reason to continue living!” And so in the teachings of the Sacred Zohar, the fiftieth rung of the ladder is where the loving Lord is to be found, Alone in Glorious Splendor.


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