Those are the words inscribed on the Liberty Bell cast in 1752 in Pennsylvania. The full phrase reads: “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof,” and it was taken from a verse in Vayikra, Leviticus 25:10 about what was to be done in what the Torah calls the Jubilee Year. These instructions included laws regarding the return of property and the freeing of slaves.
Rashi, the preeminent Jewish medieval commentator quoting from a Midrash (a collection of ancient biblical commentaries), states: “Rabbi Yehudah says, ‘What is the origin of the Hebrew term for liberty, “Dror?” As one who M’dayeir, resides in a residence, Dayirah, who lives wherever he wants, and is not under the domain of others.’”
That word Dror is also used in Tehillim, Psalms 84:4, “Even a bird found a house and a swallow her nest…” Dror here means swallow.
According to some commentators, the Psalm’s words, written by King David, were about David’s yearning for a place where he could be at peace, a place he could feel free, like a swallow, a Dror, who finds a place to build her nest. After all, what could be more free than being able to take flight at will to wherever one pleases?
The Ibn Ezra, another great Jewish medieval commentator, says that the bird is a singing bird and is perhaps called that because it will not sing when it does not have freedom.
What beautiful analogies we learn from this Biblical word for liberty!
Rashi, explaining the words of the Tehilim verse above, quotes from another Midrash that states the text was referring to the first Jewish Temple. This was to be the permanent residence of God, with all its holy vessels, many of them forged from pure gold. David so very much desired to build the Temple but was not allowed to construct it because, as God told David in Divrei Hayamim Aleph, 1 Chronicles 22:8, “You shall not build a House in My Name because you have shed much blood to the ground before Me.”
King David understood that his place of liberty, would be a place of peace, the holy Temple, as it says in the Midrash, Bamidbar Rabbah (a Midrash on the book of Numbers): “When was there peace in Israel? When God resided at the Mishkan, the tabernacle.” Alas for David, because he could not fulfill his great desire – his son Solomon later built the Temple – the promise of inner and outer peace eluded him.
What more can we learn from the word, Dror?
Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value and so, every Hebrew word has a cumulative numerical value, and many commentators over the years have used these numerical values as teaching tools. Dror’s numerical value is 410. The Baal Haturim, yet another great Jewish medieval commentator, says the word Dror’s numerical value is a hint about the 410 years of the First Jewish Temple.
In Shmot, Exodus 25:8-9, God tells the Children of Israel, “And let them make Me a holy place (sanctuary [and later the Temple]), that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all its vessels, so you shall make it.” Here the Baal Haturim states the word holy, “Kadosh” in Hebrew, also has a numerical value of 410, as does the word tabernacle, “Mishkan,” which also means dwelling place. He explains these words hint at that first Temple as well, again, that Temple David so desired to build, that place where he could feel free and be at peace.
When my sisters and I were children, on Election Day we would walk with our parents to Falstaff Elementary School a couple blocks from our house to watch our parents vote. As I entered the voting booth with my father one of those times, he said to me, “This is why we are in America. This is why we are here.”
During their young adulthood, Leo and Regina Altman suffered at the hands of the Nazis in the Holocaust, and after the war, at the hands of the Communists. Like many in Europe during those terrible times, they yearned for their own temple of peace, a place where they could be free, free from their horrible enslavements, free to go where they wished and do what they wished, free to have every opportunity for them and for their family, a land where they could raise their children free of fear.
I am certain my parents and multitudes of others looked skyward at the birds and wished they could also simply fly above and away from their troubles. They too wished, I am sure, to sing as carefree and sweetly as those birds did.
The place of my parent’s yearning, their place for inner and outer peace, was – called by them and many others in Eastern Europe – the “Goldene Medinah,” the Golden Country, in other words, the Promised Land. They did not mean pre-Israel Palestine, or the State of Israel, although many Europeans made their way to the Jewish homeland to begin new lives. They meant the United States of America.
I believe our Founding Fathers knew that their fledgling country would become a haven for so many, in so many future generations, who yearned for a place free of tyranny, a resplendent place of dignity and hope for all who would be blessed to call it home.
The Liberty Bell with its inscribed biblical message of liberty, this bell which many historians believe was rung on July 4, 1776 to announce the reading of the Declaration of Independence, was the perfect companion to the golden words written in that famous proclamation, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Happy Fourth of July!