BeHar, we are still standing at Sinai. This Shabbat, as we conclude the reading of the Book of Leviticus, we review the last pieces of the legislation given to Moses by God on the top of this mountain. The legislation contained within these last two portions of Vayikra, Behar & Bechukotai, are confounding at first glance. In a moment, Carly will address the challenges of the system of divine retribution laid out in the latter of these readings, in Parashat Bechukotai. Allow me to take a moment to reflect on Parashat Behar.
Parashat Behar opens with laws regarding land ownership: first, the command to give the land a Sabbath year of fallow every seventh year, what is called the shemitah; and second, the commandment regarding the yuval, the Jubilee marked every 50 years. After counting off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years, or in simpler terms after counting 49 years, the Israelites were to sound the shofar on Yom Kippur to announce the start of the yuval. The first instruction after the call of the shofar:
וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ
You shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all its inhabitants. Sound familiar, “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land & to all of its inhabitants!” This Levitical verse found its way onto the Liberty Bell that sits proudly as a national symbol on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. The Torah portion continues from this now famous verse to detail the instructions for the yuval, in short the specifics for the release of one’s material holdings (in the biblical period this amounted to land, loans, and people).
Liberty. The Hebrew original: dror, translated on our nation’s bell as “liberty,” is of interest. The translation comes from the Church of England’s King James bible whose 1769 edition became the gold standard of bible translations in the non-Jewish English speaking world. Ironically, of course, though it was crafted in London, the Liberty Bell was commissioned to celebrate political independence from Britain. Our bell, however, became a popular national symbol for freedom only decades later when “freedom” took on the added connation of personal freedom from slavery and bondage. These modern notions of liberty are lovely, and the Church of England’s translation fits with our American values; yet, it behooves us to consider what the biblical writer intended for us to understand as dror, as liberty or freedom. Given the context of the narrative in Leviticus, which was inked long before any idea of America, let alone American Revolution or Civil War entered human consciousness, the word choice warrants attention.
Most often when referring to freedom (such as the setting free of a slave or servant), the bible uses an entirely different word, חופש (chofesh), a term that in modern Hebrew today still retains the notion of freedom as it is used for vacation. In Israel, when school lets out, chofesh begins.
So, why dror? Why not chofesh like elsewhere in the Torah where freedom and liberty are referenced? Rashi, the well-known and beloved eleventh-century French commentator, views dror as specifically the freedom from living under someone else’s rule - under someone else's thumb, an understandable understanding given the reality of Jewish life in medieval France and Germany. A thirteenth-century grammarian, R. Avraham Bedersi, argued similarly that chofesh implies solely a reduction of servitude or serf-labor, whereas “dror signifies its total abolition.” Certainly the abolition of serfdom was an ideal of liberty for many (especially Jews, who were as a people barred from owning land) during this period. Later scholars too add that while chofesh marks the absence of labor perhaps even for a length of time, dror denotes the polar opposite of subservience. Dror demands that each person become his or her own master.
Contemporary scholars Tamara Cohen Ezkenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss, the editors of the 2008 Women’s Torah Commentary published by The Women of Reform Judaism, remind us that the laws regarding the land in Parashat Behar, including our venerated proclamation of liberty, “aim to protect economically disadvantaged members of their community from losing their freedom and means of livelihood.” The yuval, the 50th Jubilee year, was instituted, was legislated, into the biblical calendar as a vehicle for economic adjustment as an, albeit theologically-based, system for the balancing of power and ownership in society.
For all of our American valuing of liberty, I wonder how well we are doing at maintaining dror in our society? I am no economist or wealth manager, but it seems to me that our society reflects anything but the balance of power, wealth, and ownership across the citizens of our nation. Proclaiming a liberty that extends beyond chofesh, simply an extended vacation from labor for some demands that we take very seriously the positive mandate of dror and the responsibility liberty entails. Becoming master of our selves, of being released from being subordinate to another, is not a mandate to accumulate excessive wealth with the intent of holding onto it in such a way as to keep others subordinate.
America’s founders understood this as well. The responsibility and determination required to establish a new country free of familiar monarchy and based entirely on new and democratic ideals, required dror. It required the liberty to release and allow others to claim. Those who commissioned our nation’s bell, I believe, fully understood the context of this proclamation of liberty. Proclaiming dror ba’aretz, proclaiming a release that allows for the experience of true liberty, is a mandate to take care of the world – and all that we claim from it as material possession – for the time that it is ours to do so. The privilege of that liberty demands also that we do so in a manner that promotes liberty and justice for all.