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Parshat Behar: Yearning to Be Free

Excerpted from Unlocking the Torah Text –Vayikra by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Unlocking the Torah Text - Vayikra

Two specific commandments to count seven cycles of seven units each, leading to a fiftieth culminating unit, appear in the Torah within the span of two contiguous parshiot.

In Parshat Emor, the Torah commanded the counting of the forty-nine days of the Omer (seven weeks, each of seven days) leading to the festival of Shavuot on the fiftieth day.

Now, in Parshat Behar, the Torah commands the counting of forty- nine years (seven Sabbatical cycles, each of seven years) leading to Yovel, the Jubilee, or fiftieth year.

A cursory review of the respective texts does, however, reveal a subtle distinction between these two precepts.

Concerning the Omer count towards the Festival of Shavuot, the Torah states: U’sfartem lachem, “And you shall count for yourselves” (in the plural); while concerning the count towards Yovel, the Torah states: V’safarta lecha, “And you shall count for yourself” (in the singular).



Is there a connection between the two disparate yet similar mitzvot of Sfirat Ha’omer and the counting towards Yovel, found in such close proximity within the text?

Does the seemingly minor move from plural terminology (associated with Sfirat Ha’omer) to singular terminology (associated with the counting towards Yovel) shed any light on the connection and/or contrast between these two mitzvot?





The key to understanding the connection and contrast between the Omer and the Yovel counts may well emerge from an unexpected source, the distinction between two different dimensions of freedom in Jewish thought, dror and cheirut.

1. Dror (liberty): The removal of external constraints, physical or otherwise, that impede an individual’s personal choice and independent action. Dror is either conferred upon an individual by an outside force or attained through severance from that force.

2. Cheirut (freedom): The injection of positive purpose and value into one’s life. The individual who enjoys cheirut, by choosing to pursue a higher goal, actively frees himself from servitude to the surrounding world and its potentially enslaving forces. Cheirut cannot be granted by another but must be attained by an individual himself.



At the beginning of Parshat Behar, as the Torah outlines the Yovel laws concerning the freeing of Jewish indentured servants and the return of land to its original holders, the operant principle is dror: “U’keratem dror ba’aretz l’chol yoshveha, and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

This well-known passage, which enters the annals of American history with its partial inscription on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, has very specific meaning in its original Torah context. At the onset of the Yovel year, Jewish society is mandated to “proclaim liberty,” by removing external constraints from certain individuals within its borders. Indentured servants are freed and land is returned to its original owners, as these individuals are liberated from bondage and poverty and afforded new possibilities for personal freedom. The full actualization of these possibilities, however, remains in the hands of the individuals themselves.

The numbering of years towards Yovel is thus a societal count, performed through the aegis of the beit din (the court) as it anticipates the time when Jewish society will act to “proclaim liberty” within its borders. The Torah therefore speaks of this count in singular terms: “V’safarta lecha, and you (beit din, as a single unit representing the society as a whole) shall count for yourself.”



The counting of the Omer leads, on the other hand, towards a different dimension of freedom.

As noted previously, many authorities view the mitzva of Sfirat Ha’omer as an act of linkage connecting the physical freedom of the Exodus with the spiritual freedom of Sinai. The nature of this spiritual freedom granted during Revelation is revealed in a fascinating Midrashic interpretation of a critical Torah passage: “And the tablets [received at Sinai] were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved [charut] upon the tablets.”

“Read not charut [engraved],” the rabbis explain, “but cheirut [freedom]; for no man is free but he who occupies himself in the study of Torah.”

To the rabbinic mind, cheirut, full personal freedom, can only be attained through attachment to a higher goal and a higher good. Such an act of affiliation frees an individual from the limiting forces that abound in his world, enabling him to invest his life with meaning and achieve his full spiritual potential. It is this gift of cheirut which is offered to the Jewish nation through the laws given at Sinai.

The search for cheirut is therefore intensely personal and can only be performed by each individual for him- or herself. There can be no shortcuts nor can this journey towards true personal freedom be performed through a representative. When it comes to Sfirat Ha’omer, the mitzva that marks the passage towards cheirut, therefore, the Torah proclaims, U’sfartem lachem, “And you shall count for yourselves” (in the plural). Each individual is obligated to count for himself, to find his own road towards personal meaning.



Two mitzvot thus emerge within the span of two parshiot, each the mirror image of the other.

Both of these mitzvot speak of counting seven cycles of seven towards the goal of a fiftieth, culminating unit. Both represent a journey towards a specific dimension of freedom.

There, however, the parallel ends.

The counting of years towards Yovel, found in Parshat Behar, serves as a reminder to societies across the ages of their obligation to grant dror, liberty, to those under their sway; to break the chains of tyranny and prejudice that limit personal opportunity for any individual within their boundaries.

The counting of days towards the festival of Shavuot, found in Parshat Emor, on the other hand, speaks directly to the individuals themselves: No one can grant you personal freedom. Cheirut is a God-given right which you must discover for yourselves.


Points to Ponder

The inscription on the Liberty Bell is incomplete…

Searching for a passage to properly mark the fiftieth anniversary of Pennsylvania’s original Constitution (William Penn’s forward-thinking 1701 Charter of Rights), the Pennsylvania Assembly, in 1751, chose a phrase from Parshat Behar: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

They ignored, however, the end of the sentence: “…a Jubilee year shall it be for you, and you shall return every man unto his heritage and every man unto his family you shall return.”

The omission seems reasonable. This second section of text, speaking of the steps to be followed after the proclamation of liberty, is, after all, difficult to understand. What does the mandate to return to one’s family and heritage have to do with the acquisition of liberty?

On a technical level, Jewish law learns important additional precepts from the second half of this sentence. The phrase “You shall return every man to his heritage” conveys, according to the rabbis, the requirement that property revert to its original owners on the Jubilee year.11 From the words “Every man unto his family you shall return,” the scholars derive that all indentured servants, including those who had previously indicated a desire to stay in servitude, must be freed. Even an individual who has clearly renounced his claim to freedom is released on Yovel.

Another fundamental idea, however, may also be rooted in the passage “…a Jubilee year shall it be for you, and you shall return every man unto his heritage and every man unto his family you shall return.”

With the laws of the Jubilee year, the Torah informs us that true freedom cannot be gained through a complete severance with the past. In order to chart a new course towards the future, the past, with all its complexities, must be reckoned with: lessons must be learned, successes valued, failures confronted.

The law turns to the Jew who has sold himself into servitude because of poverty or thievery, and forces him to go free. You cannot run away from your past, the Torah insists, you must return to your roots and confront your failure. Likewise, the Torah instructs the property owner who has sold his cherished heritage, again because of poverty: Learn from any errors that you may have made, so that you will succeed tomorrow.

In short, the Torah informs us that the dror, liberty, granted by society on Yovel should serve as a prelude to the personal search for cheirut, freedom – a search that best begins with a journey into the past.

How ironic that a passage that has come to symbolize the American struggle to break free from past allegiances actually conveys the opposite message. There are no “brave new worlds” in Jewish thought. As we strike off towards a new dawn, we simultaneously step back, into our own complex past. Therein lies a wealth of experience that will guide us in our emerging endeavors. A healthy respect for that past is the best insurance for the future.

The words engraved on the Liberty Bell tell only part of the story. Any proclamation of liberty must be accompanied by a sense of responsibility emerging from the past. Only then do we stand a chance of succeeding as individuals and as a people.