This weeks parsha, Behar, is the only instance in which the word “Dror” meaning freedom appears in the entire text of the Torah. I have always found this frustrating because for me it seems like freedom is one of the values that precede the Torah in a moral sense (the way that “good” and “justice” also seem to) and because it precedes the implementation of the Torah practically (if people are not free, following the commandments that the Torah enumerates is morally meaningless).
Perhaps this almost incidental treatment of personal liberty in the Torah (at least as visible to the naked eye) is the reason that classical Jewish texts have not generally championed freedom of the individual over the collective. Still, given the singular and unanticipated appearance of the Hebrew word for freedom in this short parsha, it serves as an all the more valuable window into how the Torah views liberty, and what we can learn from the text about its essential ingredients.
In this respect, there are two ideas about the biblical ingredients for liberty that jump off the page. The first is relatively straightforward, but still vastly underappreciated today. Remarkably, the Torah locates the idea of individual liberty in a resounding affirmation of property rights and economic freedom. No meaningful freedom of any kind can be attained, without first having the freedom to conduct business. Although it is very common to see the commandments regarding Shmita (the mandated seventh year rest from cultivation for the land of Israel) and Yovel (the cancellation of servitude and debt mandated after the 49th year) marketed as a prescription for economic re-distribution or intervention by the state, its real effect is just the opposite. By commanding the individual (as opposed to the state) to help their neighbors who are less fortunate, while placing clear limits on the extent of this mandate, the Torah leaves the rest up to human ingenuity and market forces, making it impossible to implement centrally planned agricultural and economic policy. And by declaring that the land actually belongs solely to God, the Torah is in fact sanctifying the property rights of the human owners who poses it, making a takeover or forfeiture of the land to any other owner temporary at best.
The second idea that emerges from the text is less obvious and more far-reaching. The text of the parsha evokes repeated 7 day cycles of creation and rest (Shabbat), and 7 year cycles of creation and un-creation (Shmita). Shmita is a return to a sort of wild starting point for the land, where it loses contact with civilization and human influence and reverts to a primordial state. The next cyclical time scale, following 7 cycles of Shmita, is even more radical causing certain aspects of our social order and civilizational innovations to revert to their starting point.
I think that this idea of a cycle of growth and rejuvenation cuts two ways, one good and one bad (as we see in the end of the parsha). On one hand, freedom (Dror) is not something that a society achieves in a day or a year. It is something that is built week by week, seven years by seven years, taking steps forward and then backward, until something better than the initial ingredients emerges form this evolutionary process. Similarly to how the American system of government was the culmination of 1000 years of British common law and self determination, a free society comprises much more than an erudite founding document and a supreme court.
But the cycles of growth and regeneration of Shabbat, Shmita, and Yovel hint at a darker message as well. While it is true that the gradual improvement of human society over time can yield wonderful results, like freedom and the elevation of the human condition, the opposite trend is also observed. Human societies have a tendency to decay and degrade themselves, through the loss of founding discipline, adoption of habit and new values, and the normalization of what is initially unthinkable and is eventually commonplace. In the same way that stem cells in an organism differentiate through successive cycles of division and can eventually accumulate enough mutations to escape the multi-cellular contract and become cancerous, ideas of morality, politics, and religion can all transmute over time into very much the opposite of what the Torah intends. Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah makes use of this evolutionary paradigm to explain how the world of Enosh turned entirely to idolatry within only a few generations from Adam who knew God. At first they acknowledged the stars only symbolically, knowing full well that only God is God, in the next generation it was said that of course God is God but the stars also have some power, then came a charismatic leader who vouched for the legitimacy of star worship, followed no doubt by some stories of miracles performed for people who prayed to the sun, and so forth and so on.
One could say, treading lightly on the subject, that even Judaism in its most elevated form is not immune to the inevitable fatigue and stagnation that result from the passage of time and the fingerprints of successive generations as they think, write, and make decisions. What is needed, parshat Behar is saying, is once in a lifetime (back then it was 50 years or so) to endeavor to turn the clock back to a basic primordial state, prescribed by the Torah of course, but free of the corrupting element of human innovation.
Perhaps this is why the parsha ends with two commandments, one negative and one positive. We are commanded to refrain from idolatry, and this is precisely the negative result of the evolutionary process that Shmita and Yovel are meant to protect us against. In every generation we must seek out a primordial, original meaning of Torah, free from the constrains placed on it by the slow grinding of Jewish thought and history. But we are also reminded to keep Shabbat, the ultimate proof-text for individual liberty, and to worship Gods temple, which every generation, through its increasing ingenuity and cumulative wisdom, is entitled to build.