Categorized | Columnists, D'var Torah

Freedom and liberty for all, not just some

Posted on 23 May 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, is famous for lending a verse to the Liberty Bell and I wanted to focus on that aspect of the Jubilee Year. Leviticus 25:10 states: “And you shall hallow the 50th year. You shall proclaim liberty (in Hebrew, d’ror) throughout the land for all its inhabitants. [This is the famous sentence inscribed on the Liberty Bell.] It shall be a Jubilee for you: Each of you shall return to his holding; each of you shall return to his family.”

The question is: Why is the word d’ror, liberty, used instead of the more common chofshi, which is most often translated in the sense of freedom? Rabbi Avraham Bedersi, who lived at the end of the 13th century in Southern France, explained: “Both terms are antonyms of bondage, but d’ror surpasses the other in that it denotes clarity and purity, i.e., anything free of dross and corruption.” That is, if you are set free — the word chofshi — there may be some qualifications to it. How will you feed, clothe and house yourself, if you are merely set free without any resources to support yourself?

Someone who is set free in this way would soon find it necessary to sell themselves back into slavery, just to survive. However, in the Jubilee year, when liberty is proclaimed, everyone goes back to the land they originally owned, and their families. There are no qualifications to the liberty of personal freedom, with the chance to earn your own keep with your own land and the support of your own family.

The purity of liberty is further emphasized with the phrase in the verse which speaks of proclaiming liberty “for all its inhabitants.” Note that liberty is not for a select few. It’s not just for Jews. Liberty is for all.

Penei Yehoshua, a famous 18th-century rabbi and commentator, emphasizes this point: “The Torah does not address ‘all the slaves’ but ‘all the inhabitants,’ because in any country where freedom is incomplete, even if this is the case with only some of the people, all the people are enslaved. One only feels freedom when there is no slavery whatsoever in the country. Slavery is an affliction which afflicts both slave and master. Our sages said something along these same lines when they state that ‘he who acquires a slave for himself acquires a master for himself.’”

How many times have we, as Jews, been the exception to the rule, the incomplete part of freedom? Not so long ago, anyone could go to college, except for blacks who were excluded or Jews who were limited by quota. We have the freedom in America to worship as we please, yet not so long ago the city of Beachwood, Ohio, fought to keep Fairmount Temple, my temple before I became a rabbi, from locating in Beachwood. The case had to go to the Ohio Supreme Court to allow them to build.

What God is trying to tell us with the use in this verse of the word d’ror, is that society will never truly have liberty so long as we have exceptions, people who are excluded for whatever reason from the full rights and freedoms the rest of us enjoy. We must have and pursue complete and pure freedom for all the inhabitants of our country, without exceptions. Then and only then will true liberty be proclaimed throughout the land.

Bimheira uvyameinu. May it happen speedily and in our days.

Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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