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What does it mean to be free?

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

May 15th, 2008

Leviticus: 25:1-26:2
Jeremiah 32:6-27

The first part of this week’s portion begins with the laws of Shemitah, the Sabbatical Year. These laws command that every seventh year the land must rest and lie fallow for a complete year.

The Torah then tells us that after seven such years, the 50th year is declared a “Jubilee” year. During this time, slaves are freed even if they don’t want to be, 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” (Leviticus 25:10).

In this verse, the Hebrew for “liberty” is dror, a word that appears but one other time in the Torah. It is found in the compound word mor-dror, meaning “flowing or pure myrrh,” an ingredient in the incense that was presented in the Sanctuary (Exodus 30:23).

The Talmud, Tractate Rosh HaShanah 9b, tells us that Rabbi Yehuda connects dror with the Hebrew word for dwelling, 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.”

As the great medieval French sage Rashi, in his commentary on that passage phrases it, “a person who can live wherever he wants to” is free.

Dror is also the Hebrew word for “sparrow.” According to the “Torah Temimah” compilation by Rabbi Baruch Epstein (1860-1942), citing from Talmud Tractate Betza 24a, a sparrow is called dror because it accepts no authority or direction, and “in the house it lives like in the field.”

Thus, this bird 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.

Physical and psychological

The Talmud understands that the word dror casts light on the nature of liberty. Truly free people can live wherever they want, and earn their 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 that individual really wants to live in Efrat, and cannot arrange to do so, then that person isn’t yet free.

On the other hand, someone else may be hovering just above the poverty level in Jerusalem, but may be freer than the California person, since that individual truly wishes to be in Jerusalem.

Freedom means mobility, physical as well as psychological, and all the laws of the seventh year and of the Jubilee year are intended to return 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 his neighbor” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). Just as the land returns to itself, 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 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 as free as the dror, and no authority can ever limit our spirit.

Jews suffer as Jews when circumstances force us to “sell” our own tradition, so we end up languishing as hired hands in the spiritual fields of others, forgetting where we came from, so we become spiritually homeless, without a real anchor in history or in psyche.

It is the gift of rootedness — in history, traditions and homestead — which enables the individual to wander the globe and still have a home.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.