Parashat Behar-Behukotai- The Torah’s Concept of “Freedom”
In the beginning of the Parashat Behar, we read of the Misva of “Yobel,” the jubilee year. Every fifty years during the times of the Bet Hamikdash, a number of special laws took effect. Agricultural activity was forbidden (just like during the year of Shemita), purchased property returned to its original owner, and Jewish servants were released. The Torah sanctioned a system of indentured servitude – “Ebed Ibri” – whereby a person who was poor or could not repay stolen funds could “sell” himself as a servant. On the Yobel year, all servants had to be set free and released from their master’s home.
In presenting this law, the Torah writes, “each of you shall return to his family” (25:10). The Torah places particular emphasis on the fact that the newly-freed servant shall “return to his family.” Rather than simply stating that he leaves his master, the Torah found it necessary to stress that he must return home, to his wife and children.
This emphasis underscores the fundamental difference between the Torah’s concept of “freedom” and the notion of “freedom” that is prevalent is today’s society. In the world around us, “freedom” is understood to mean the absence of restraints and limitations, the ability to act as one pleases without restriction. People today think that being “free” means being able to indulge freely and act unrestrained on their instincts and impulses, without being bound to any structure or system.
From the Torah’s perspective, however, “freedom” means returning to one’s family, to the structured environment and commitments of Jewish family life. A person who is “free” is able to fulfill his obligations to his wife, children and parents as mandated by the Torah. For us, “freedom” means not the ability to do what one wants to do, but rather ability to do what one must do.
The Sages famously commented, “There is no one who is free other than someone who involves himself in Torah.” The freedom to act on impulse is not freedom – it is subjugation, being enslaved to one’s desires and passions. A person who is truly “free” enjoys the freedom to control his instincts and the lead a life of virtue and sanctity. Rather than being controlled by his evil inclination, he has he power to rise above his impulses and follow the path of Torah and Misvot.
Therefore, the Torah stresses that when a master releases his servant, the servant goes to his family, to a life of meaning and fulfillment. If he would leave to a life of lawlessness and the endless pursuit of vain pleasures, then he would simply leave from one state of subjugation to another. Instead, he is freed of his obligations to his master so that he could return to his obligations to his family, and to his obligations to his Creator.