This week’s Parashah begins with the rules of Shemittah, the seven-year cycle for the working of the land, as well as the 50-year Yovel cycle, which discusses the concept of liberating slaves. These laws have been elaborated in Parashat Mishpatim. In general the slave is free in the Shemittah year, yet if the slave insists, he may have his ear pierced and continue his slavery until the Yovel year. Why would a slave not want freedom? Additionally, why does the Torah in Parashat BeHar use the unusual word “Deror” to describe the freedom?
Targum Onkelos explains the word “Deror” to simply mean freedom, but Rashi—bothered why the Torah uses such a rare word—quotes Rabbi Yehudah who explains the concept of the slave’s “Deror” to be the ability to live wherever he wants. Is that really the concept of freedom? Rav Rothwachs remarked that an alcoholic, who must have wine every night, even if he is extremely wealthy and has no restrictions or responsibilities, is not free. Freedom is the ability to control your own time and yourself. An alcoholic is a slave to his desires, and being liberated from that slavery and having no force distracting him from serving Hashem is the greatest freedom. Accordingly, why did Rabbi Yehuda say that the ability to move freely is the very same as freedom?
Perhaps the answer is best seen from the way Nazis persecuted Netherland Jews, as Edith Van Hussen, a survivor from the Netherlands, writes in her biography. The first restriction over the Jews was that they were not aloud to travel in their own vehicles, but were permitted only on public trains or buses. Later they had an eight o’clock curfew, and after that they were relocated. Only then, after losing their humane freedom, were they mass-murdered. The Nazis took away the Jews’ freedom by preventing them from traveling and being mobile as they pleased. This accords with the explanation of Rabbi Yehuda that term freedom in the Torah means the ability to travel and live freely. This also is consistent with Rav Rothwachs’ analogy—the ability to move around freely removes one from the constant state of mind of a slave. When one must be working as a slave in his master’s house, though treated very well by Halachah, he still constantly has distractions that prevent him from doing time-based commandments. The ability to travel freely lets him run his own time schedule, and if he takes advantage of that responsibility, he can free himself from any addiction or needs he might have. That is the freedom we strive for - the ability to manage our own time and provisions. If we fail this obligation, we will be no different than a slave.
So why would a slave want to stay past the Shemittah year? This comes down to the fact that many of us do have addictions, like alcohol, drugs, or even things like a “must watch” TV show. We give up our time on a constant basis, and eventually subsidize our self-control as more of our lives depend on our addiction. When a slave gives up his time for some food and shelter, he too must listen to a master other than Hashem. Eventually the slave becomes accustomed to this; he will not be able to change his daily routine. Hence, if a slave urges his master to remain, Hashem permits it, but when it is so long and it reaches a limit, the Yovel year, he is free. Similarly, we are fine as long as we are able to keep up with our daily routines, but at one point, we must evaluate how much of it we need and have control over, so that we may end our slavery, and fulfill every single time-bound Mitzvah properly.