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liberty bell

People engrave a verse on the Liberty Bell, generations of Americans discuss it, you’d figure we know what the verse means. “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all inhabitants thereof.” However, Rashi, Ramban, and Meshech Chochmah (for three whose views I had the space to discuss) show tradition understood the key word, deror, as indicating a version of liberty surprising to the Western mind.  

Vayikra 25;10 says ve-kidashtem the fiftieth year (loosely, sanctify, a complex verb of its own. Alec Goldstein, who published my book, As If We Were There, has written a book on the meaning of kedushah, which shows it’s not a topic to hope to fit into this space). After being mekadesh the year, we are told to call deror for all the land’s inhabitants, the year is a Yovel, each person shall return to his inheritance and family. 


Rashi says the deror (liberty) matters to avadim, Jewish indentured servants, those in their first term of servitude or who had their ears pierced as part of their insistence on staying longer in their master’s home. They all can now live wherever they want (deror refers to the right to wander, similar to the tzipor deror, the wandering birds, part of the ceremony to end a person’s experience of tzara’at.) 

Despite how open it sounds, there was no expectation of random or personal wanderings. The verse also says people will return to their inheritance, which Rashi says means the fields sold (or donated to the Temple). Those fields now come back to their owners, and the last phrase of the verse says men are to return to their families. Freedom here is the freedom to return to one’s old life, living on ancestral land with one’s extended family (immediate family joined the indentured servant in his master’s home). 

Ramban makes the point in arguing for a different definition of yovel. Rashi attributes the word to the blowing of the Shofar which inaugurates it (Yehoshu’a 6;4 speaks of shoferot ha-yovelim, rams’ horns, when blasting the trumpets outside the walls of Yericho). Ramban instead reads yovel as a form of yuval, each man will be drawn or led back to his family and original plot of land. Ramban had already agreed deror referred to the ability to go wherever one wanted.  

I believe he assumed the Torah was sure liberty meant each man would return to his ancestral lands and the extended family—parents, siblings, cousins– to be found there. No one (or very few), given the option, would use “liberty” to go anywhere else.  

Meshech Chochmah  (by R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) doubles down on the point, argues the verse is telling us yovel gives the chance to reunify the family. Over time, one sibling might move north, another south, in search of a livelihood. With the restoration of ancestral lands (and the sustanance they provide), families can return to the parts of Israel bequeathed to them by their forefathers, the clan coming back together. 

The assumed clannishness of Jewish society seems to me an element lost or brushed under the rug of Western individualism. When I was growing up, people still remembered a time when children were expected to (and usually did) affiliate with the political party (and, often, profession) of their parents. As society rejected excessive forms of imposed identity, it seems to me we lost sight of forms of it the Torah expected and wanted. 

People are born to a certain tribe, a certain beit av (forefather’s house), a certain part of the land of Israel. Without any implied judgment as to why those affiliations were broken or weakened over time, Ramban and Meshech Chochmah read the Torah to be trying to restore that original setup every seven shemittot. 

Many correctly pick up on the social justice aspects of it. Impoverished people will once again be landowners, concentrations of wealth will be reduced and reset. All true; I am pointing out another element restored, the grouping of the Land in families and tribes. We are free to be who we want, with the caveat we build it on the background and framework of who birthed us. 

I remember learning in high school about the difference between poetry which follows rigid rules, such as Shakespeare’s sonnets, and poetry which does not, such as free verse. Already then, I knew Judaism believed in the first type of freedom, where poets find their creative ways to inspire and express themselves within a system, a set of rules and parameters.  

As did the Yovel. Proclaim liberty, for sure, a Jewish liberty, where we return to our ancestors, geographically and emotionally, and from there find ourselves and our place in the world