Ari Sacher

‘Sadness or Euphoria’ Parashat Behar – Bechukotai 5783

The Jewish agricultural calendar follows a seven-year cycle revolving around the shemitta year, a sabbatical year in which the land lies fallow and all agricultural activity is forbidden. Shemitta bears witness that our land belongs not to us but to G-d. The shemitta cycle is itself part of a larger cycle: Seven shemitta cycles are followed by a fiftieth Jubilee (Yovel) Year which, as far as agriculture is concerned, has the same rules as the shemitta year[1]. Yovel is more than just another shemitta year [Vayikra 25:10]: “You shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom (d’ror) throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee (Yovel) for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family.” Yovel adds two additional ordinances: On Yovel, all slaves are automatically freed and all family plots automatically return to their original owners.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin[2], writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, has trouble with the above verse. If “proclaiming freedom throughout the land” is relevant only to slaves, how then can the verse still be referring to “all who live on it”? Even in the slave-based economy that existed at the time the Torah was given, not everyone was a slave. Rabbi Sorotzkin answers his question by referencing the Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin [22b] that states that the Torah is so concerned with a slave’s rights that a person who purchases a slave has essentially purchased himself a master: “You shall not eat fresh bread while he eats black bread, you drink old wine while he drinks new wine, you sleep on bed of feathers while he sleeps on beds of straw”. As a result of this relationship, teaches Rabbi Sorotzkin, when a slave is released, both the slave and the master are granted freedom. Other than this answer being somewhat cutesy, the mathematics still do not fit. Not every human being in the world is either a slave or a slave-owner. What, then, does the Torah mean when it refers to “all who live on it”?

If we are already asking questions about the verse, another question should hit us squarely in the face: What is the etymological source of the word “d’ror”, translated above as “freedom”? This word appears in only one other place in the Torah, in the list of spices used in making the anointing oil. Rashi[3], quoting from the Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [9b], explains: “What is the etymology of the term ‘d’ror’, translated as ‘freedom’? A free man is like a person who may dwell (la’dur) at an inn, meaning that he may reside in any place he pleases, and is not under the control of others. [D’ror therefore implies liberty of residence]”. While this interpretation of the word d’ror is the most accepted interpretation, appearing in multiple locations in the Tanach[4], I would like to interpret d’ror using the interpretation proposed by Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch[5], who draws from the one other instance that the word is used in the Torah. The Torah lists the spices that are used in the production of the anointing oil that is to be used to anoint the Tabernacle (Mishkan) and all of its utensils [Shemot 30:23]: “Take for yourself spices of the finest sort: of pure myrrh (mor d’ror) five hundred [shekel weights]…” D’ror means “pure”. According to Rabbi Hirsch, d’ror means going back to a sort of state of nature. In Yovel, both man and his possessions return to their pure original state: a man returns to his family and his property returns to its original owners.

In order to leverage Rabbi Hirsch’s interpretation to answer our original question – how Yovel brings freedom to “all who live on [the land]” – we turn our attention to the Liberty Bell. Located in downtown Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell is an iconic symbol of American independence. It is perhaps most famous for its crack. The Liberty Bell first cracked when it was rung after its arrival in Philadelphia in 1752. The bell attracted large crowds which, unsurprisingly. led to additional cracking and pieces were chipped away by souvenir hunters. Since then, it has been recast (unsuccessfully) twice. Nevertheless, it remains cracked to this day. Inscribed on the bell is the King James translation of Vayikra [25:10]: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof”. The Liberty Bell is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Slavery was abolished in the United States only in 1865, meaning that for more than one hundred years, the bell proclaimed liberty for white people, only. In the 1830’s, the abolitionist movement began adopting the bell’s inscription, using the words as a central focus of their cause to abolish slavery. Indeed, it was the abolitionists that gave the bell the name “Liberty Bell” – until then it was called the “State House Bell”. That same bell, which had rung for American freedom from powers without – specifically, from England –  became symbolic for freedom and justice within.

A similar kind of cognitive dissonance exists within Yovel. If freeing the slaves is of such paramount importance then why does the Torah permit slavery at all? How can the Torah extoll the virtues of freedom and liberty if for forty-nine out of every fifty years it permits ownership of human beings created in the Divine Image by other, more fortunate, human beings? Isn’t slavery the antithesis of Torah?

The answer to this question lies in a law that determines the precise timetable according to which a slave is freed in a Yovel year. According to the scripture, slaves are freed on the day of Yom Kippur [Vayikra 25:9]: “You shall proclaim [with] the shofar blasts, in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month; on the Day of Atonement, you shall sound the shofar throughout your land”. For the first ten days of the year, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the slaves were not yet set free. They would remain in their masters’ homes where they would eat and drink and be merry, bedecked with crowns on their heads[6]. What is the reason for this intermediate period? Why not just free the slaves on Rosh Hashanah?  Rabbi Yaakov Fraymann[7], writing in “Ruach Yaakov”, asks this very question. He answers that the Torah gives a period of time with which the erstwhile master can adapt to the new reality that the person who has faithfully served as his slave has become a free man[8]. It gives the master time to look at his former slave differently. It is more than merely understanding that he is no longer superior to his slave. He must understand that his former slave is no different than he is: No man wants to be ruled by another or to sell his home and the only reason he did so was due to dire economic circumstances. The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur force the master to look his slave in the eye and see him in a state of nature.

I suggest that on Yovel, when the Torah rings the bell of freedom “for all who live on [the land]”, it is reminding us that true freedom is the freedom to be who we truly are, to throw off the shackles of circumstance and to be able to start again. No matter what we have become, no matter where we have been, on Yovel we can all start again.

My favourite Billy Joel song is “Summer, Highland Falls”. It is a song about life and relationships and about the ambivalence that we all face as we get older, as we “stand upon the ledges of our lives”. It is also a song about Yovel: “For we are always what our situations hand us, it’s either sadness or euphoria”.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yehuda ben Tzivia, Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] Our Sages are divided as to whether Yovel counts as the first year of the shemitta cycle or whether it is a stand-alone year – the zeroth year of the next shemitta cycle.

[2] Rabbi Szorotzkin lived in Pinsk, Belarus, and in Israel in the previous century.

[3] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.

[4] See, for instance, Isaiah [61:1] and Jeremiah [34:8].

[5] Rabbi Hirsch lived in Frankfurt am Mein in the nineteenth century.

[6] See Mishnah Torah Hilchot Shemitta v’Yovel [10:14] and Talmud Tractate Rosh Hashanah [8b].

[7] Rabbi Fraymann lived in Berlin at the turn of the twentieth century.  Rabbi Fraymann was a relative of Avi Mandelbaum.

[8] Rabbi Fraymann continues by noting that the world is currently undergoing a similar phenomenon. The Jewish People are being freed from two thousand years of shackles. G-d is giving the world a grace period with which to adjust to this new situation. We are looking forward to the day in which G-d will reveal Himself to the rest of the world and on that day, the Jewish People will truly be free.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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