The Torah's Most Important Directive is Especially Applicable Right Now

May 19, 2020

“You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.” (Leviticus 25:10)

“Proclaim liberty” is the most important directive of the Torah, more basic than having one God and more fundamental than honoring one’s parents, remembering Shabbat, or even loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.

Freedom is the reset button of society. It is no coincidence that we are commanded to proclaim liberty in the same verse that delineates the Jubilee year, the time when, every 50 years, debts are forgiven and any land that has been sold reverts to the original owners. It is a practical vision of what freedom requires, yet it remains unrealized; generations since and generations yet to come continue to dream, fight, sing, and pray for freedom.

This desire for freedom permeates Western culture, from Braveheart’s blood-curdling, earth-shattering end-of-life cry of “Freeeeedoooom!” to General John Stark’s simple notion that we should “Live free or die” to activist folk singers like Crosby Stills Nash and Young, who added their harmonies to the short poem:

“Find the cost to freedom
Buried in the ground
Mother earth will swallow you
Lay your body down”

For most of us, the call for liberty or release throughout the land resonates strongly right now.

The majority of the world is not exactly free as we are confined to our own spaces, fervently wishing the state of the world would revert to the way it was before this virus brought the world to its knees and imprisoned us.

The confinement of the past weeks has offered the opportunity to reflect on some of the most fundamental questions of life, closely examining what it means to be free. As Professor Eva Ilouz writes in Haaretz:

“These billions have willingly given up the most fundamental aspects of their freedom, even though, in fact, we still lack some key information about the epidemic that is responsible for the restrictions (for example, how many are actually infected, and thus what the real mortality rate is). They accepted confinement to their homes (assuming they had one), confirming the view of Thomas Hobbes (and others) that fear of death is the most powerful political passion and that we will always be willing to sacrifice our freedom for our security.”

Sacrifice we did and continue to do. The majority of us understand that temporarily relinquishing some personal freedoms is the responsible thing to do to save lives.

As our own national liberation movement was coming into being, we placed the value of freedom at the core of our nationalist aspirations, both in Israel’s Declaration of Independence – “it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” – and as the penultimate line of our national anthem – where we dream לִהְיוֹת עַם חָפְשִׁי בְּאַרְצֵנוּ, to be a Free People in Our Land. But what exactly does freedom mean here?

Does it mean freedom from tyranny and persecution?

Does it mean we can do anything, say anything, or act in any way we want?

Does it mean we can leave our houses and roam freely?

Is it freedom from our vices and devices?

Is it possible for some of us to be free if not all of us are? Can we have a free society if some attempt to relegate religious freedom for others?

Much ink has been spilled over these fundamental questions of freedom and great minds have agonized over its definitions and implementation. Twentieth-century philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between the concept of “negative freedom” and “positive freedom.” Negative freedom means freedom from interference, that others cannot hinder one’s own freedom; positive freedom means freedom as self-mastery, which asks not what we are free from, but what we are free to do.

For most of Jewish history, we sought negative freedom. We had to escape, endure, or even accept our status as being subject to the whim and will of others. Zionism changed all that. Zionism allowed us to become a free people in our own Land. Zionism redefined Jewish freedom to be about self-mastery and self-actualization rather than simply avoiding persecution. But with that self-mastery comes responsibilities that we cannot escape or turn our back on.

This week, as we read the call to proclaim liberty throughout the land, as those in the Land begin to emerge from isolation, our freedoms are still limited. It is up to us to use this moment as a reset, a Jubilee, a chance to re-evaluate what we should hold dearest.  To ensure that we are truly free, we must actualize the freedom of all the inhabitants of the Land.

So, yes, proclaim liberty throughout the Land, and find now the cost of true freedom.

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While we recognize that the deep conflict between Israelis and Palestinians will not be resolved over the summer, we believe that come the fall, college campuses must once again be safe for all students - and this includes Jewish students living their Jewish commitments openly and proudly.