What is the truest definition of freedom? I believe that an exploration of a difference of interpretation between two Talmudic sages on a phrase in our Torah portion will shed a great deal of light on this fundamental existential question.
Commenting on the verse that submits that if the nation walks in God’s ways, He “will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid, and I will cause evil beasts to cease from the land,” Rav Yehuda explains that the evil beasts “will disappear from the world,” whereas Rav Shimon Bar Yohai interprets that only the evil of the beasts will “cease from the land,” but not the beasts themselves.
What is the significance of this debate?
To answer, we should first consider another difference of opinion. In last week’s portion of Behar we read: “And you shall hallow the 50th year, and proclaim liberty (Hebrew, dror) throughout the land. … It shall be a Jubilee unto you, and you shall return every man unto his possession, and every man unto his family.”
Dror is generally translated as liberty or freedom; Rashi quotes Rav Yehuda (B.T. Rosh Hashana 9b), who associates the word ‘dror’ with ‘dur,’ to dwell, teaching that true freedom means the ability to dwell anywhere one wishes, without any restrictions at all. Nachmanides takes an entirely different slant, connecting the Hebrew dror to dor, a generation, citing a famous verse in Ecclesiastes: “One generation (Hebrew, dor) passes away and another generation comes.”
Rashi’s focuses on the Jubilee’s declaration of dror as expressing physical freedom, whereas Nachmanides’ explanation focuses on something beyond the physical, on that which gets passed down from generation to generation and represents eternity.
The freedom declared by the Jubilee Year grants us the opportunity to realize our true potential, to express our most fundamental essence grounded in the roots of our very being.
Every Jew becomes free from external domination, returning to their own land under their own government; fruits and vegetables may be eaten freely without back-breaking labor; debts that enslave the poor to their creditors are rescinded; and a year of Torah study frees every Jew from the psychological limitations and addictions that imprison their soul-psyche. Freedom means that one has the unfettered ability to express their truest self, to realize their greatest potential.
Now we are ready to return to the difference of opinion regarding the situation at the time of redemption, when Israel lives by the Divine commandments.
According to Rav Yehuda, the Almighty will effectuate a change in nature. But according to Rav Shimon bar Yochai, we will effectuate the change in ourselves because we — and the entire universe along with us — will return to our original nature expressing the original purpose of our being. In the words of Nachmanides, “When Israel observes the commandments, the land of Israel will be like the world at its beginning, before the sin of Adam, when no wild beast or creeping thing would kill a human.”
Which vision of the end of the days is better? Nachmanides prefers the interpretation of Rav Shimon Bar Yohai, because therein lies the essence of our nature, the purpose of creation and the true meaning of freedom.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.