“Shabbat Shalom” – Behukotai 5778

Parshat Behukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel – What is the truest definition of freedom? I believe that an exploration of a difference of interpretation between two Talmudic Sages on a phrase in our Torah portion will shed a great deal of light on these fundamental existential questions.

Commenting on the verse which submits that if the nation walks in God’s ways “…I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid, and I will cause evil beasts to cease from the land”. Rav Yehuda explains that the evil beasts “will disappear from the world,” whereas Rav Shimon Bar Yohai interprets that only the evil of the beasts will “cease from the land” but not the beasts themselves.

What is the significance of this debate?

To answer, we should first consider another difference of opinion. In last week’s portion of Behar we read: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty (Hebrew, dror) throughout the land… It shall be a Jubilee unto you, and you shall return every man unto his possession, and every man unto his family.”

Dror is generally translated as liberty or freedom; Rashi quotes Rav Yehuda (B.T. Rosh Hashana 9b), who associates the word ‘dror’ with ‘dur,’ to dwell, teaching that true freedom means the ability to dwell anywhere one wishes, without any restrictions at all. Nachmanides takes an entirely different slant, connecting the Hebrew dror to dor, a generation, citing a famous verse in Ecclesiastes “one generation (dor) passes away and another generation (dor) comes.’

Rashi’s focuses on the Jubilee’s declaration of dror as expressing physical freedom, whereas Nachmanides’ explanation focuses on something beyond the physical, on that which gets passed down from generation to generation and represents eternity.

The freedom declared by the Jubilee year grants us the opportunity to realize our true potential, to express our most fundamental essence grounded in the roots of our very being. Rashi insists that this truest essence of the Jew is Torah, the word of God symbolized by the sound of the ram’s horn at the time of the Revelation. Otherwise, how can we explain the amazing midrash that every fetus in its mother’s womb is taught Torah by an angel of God? Our Sages are insisting that Torah is the most fundamental ingredient of the existential soul of every Jew! Our most basic identity, our vocation and avocation, our source and our purpose, is Torah – its theoretical teaching as well as the more perfect society it commands us to form.

In the Jubilee Year, slaves go free, debts are rescinded, family homesteads are returned to their original owners; it is also a Sabbatical year, so that the land as well as its owners rest from physical labor. Every seventh year is parallel to every seventh day; instead of working the land, the farmer will work his mind in the vineyard of Torah planting spiritual ideas and ideals.

Most individuals only realize a small percentage of their potential; most of us are “blocked” by all sorts of physical and psychological barriers. We cannot do what we really wish to do, what we are truly capable of achieving, either because a government or a tyrannical employer does not allow us to, or because poverty does not afford us the time and the energy to express ourselves properly (“at the expense of his soul-roots does he bring his bread” chants the Cantor on Yom Kippur), or because damaging childhood experiences cripple our ability to be truly productive.

Now ponder the genius of the Jubilee Year. Every Jew becomes free from external domination returning to their own land under their own government, fruits and vegetables may be eaten freely without back-breaking labor, debts which enslave the poor to their creditors are rescinded; and a year of Torah study frees every Jew from the psychological limitations and addictions which imprison their soul-psyche. Freedom from a Jewish perspective doesn’t mean that one is free to do nothing; freedom means that one has the unfettered ability to express their truest self, to realize their greatest potential. It means the ability to assume responsibility for one-self and one’s actions in the fullness of one’s maturity. Such freedom enables us to re-activate the “image of God” with which we were created, and to bring the redemption by restoring the harmony of Eden.

Torah is the means by which all of this can happen, because it is the Torah which can enable people to overcome their various blocks, assume control of their instincts and destiny, and transform society into what it initially was at the dawn of creation.

Now we are ready to return to the difference of opinion between Rav Shimon Bar Yohai regarding the situation at the time of redemption, when Israel lives by the Divine commandments.

According to Rav Yehuda, the Almighty will effectuate a change in nature: the wild beasts which are still very much a part of our landscape will be gone, destroyed from the world, in a new era of peace and tranquility.

But according to Rav Shimon bar Yochai, we will effectuate the change in ourselves because we – and the entire universe along with us – will return to our original nature expressing the original purpose of our being. In the words of Nachmanides, “…When Israel observes the commandments, the land of Israel will be like the world at its beginning, before the sin of Adam, when no wild beast or creeping thing would kill a human.” .

We have two ways of conceiving redemption: A world wherein God will destroy all evil, or a world wherein the creatures themselves will return themselves to their primordial state of innocence and goodness, when “they shall not do evil or destruction in My entire holy nation because the knowledge of G-d will fill the world.” (Isaiah 11:9)

Which vision of the end of the days is better? Nachmanides prefers the interpretation of Rav Shimon Bar Yohai, because therein lies the essence of our nature, the purpose of creation and the true meaning of freedom.

Shabbat Shalom 

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