One of the most famous landmarks in the city of Philadelphia is the Liberty Bell, upon which is engraved the famous Pasuk in Parashat BeHar, “UKeratem Deror Ba’Aretz LeChol Yoshvehah,” “And proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (VaYikra 25:10). The word Deror is not common in the Torah; however, many assume it means liberty. Onkelos (ibid. 25:10) translates the word as “Cheiruta,” which means freedom. The word is similar to the Cheirut (freedom) we proclaim on Pesach. However, there is a much deeper comparison that Onkelos is driving at. Yoveil and Pesach contain many similar messages. On Pesach we transition from freedom to slavery, and on the Yoveil year we actually free all Jewish slaves.
Abarbanel (ibid. 25:1 s.v. VaYedabeir Hashem et al.) explains that Yoveil is really a remembrance to Matan Torah. He claims that just as there is a count of fifty days to Shavuot, so too there is a count of fifty years to Yoveil. Furthermore, Shofarim were blown at Matan Torah, just as they are blown every Yoveil year. A final similarity between the two is the aspect of freedom. On Yoveil we free our slaves and at Matan Torah we were freed from the chains of Gashmi’ut which bound us to Paroh. However, a question can be asked as to the significance of ‘freedom’ at Matan Torah. We were merely transitioning from servitude to Paroh to servitude to Hashem. In fact, we must free our slaves in the Yoveil year to signify that we are slaves to Hashem. How, then, were we freed by receiving the Torah?
The answer to this question is simple, yet profound. In the second Mishnah in the last Perek of Masechet Avot, known as Kinyan Torah, Rabi Yehoshua Ben Levi makes the following statement: “She’Ein Lecha Ben Chorin Ela Mi She’Oseik BaTorah,” “There is no free man except for one who immerses himself in Torah study” (Avot 6:2). If it is true that true freedom only exists for those that follow the Torah, then we can understand why Abarbanel says that we were not free until Matan Torah. While this may answer our question with regard to Abarbanel’s statement, it raises a whole new question in its stead. What does the statement in Avot mean? How can it be that following the Torah makes us free? Isn’t the Torah restrictive?
To explain Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi’s statement, we must understand what freedom really means. Many believe that conventional freedom is a situation where one can do as they please. However, American society is considered to be a free society, and it is structured by restrictive laws and principles. Clearly freedom has its limits. In many sports, some portions of a field or court are “in bounds” and other portions are “out of bounds;” yet, it is within the “in bounds” that we can thrive, and were we to disregard the boundaries, the sport would collapse. The same can be said of life. The rules and laws that govern a society are what truly make us free. Without them, there would be chaos. With them, we have the freedom to grow and truly discover who we are.
Torah laws accomplish exactly that. Rabi Yehoshua Ben Levi is saying that the true freedom to be oneself can be discovered only in the proper framework, with the proper Torah laws. Once those laws are in place, then we can grow. The Torah laws present the ultimate freedom because they are the rules and guidelines developed by the One with ultimate understanding of human nature. Hashem knows what actions are best for us and what actions, though enjoyable, might hinder us. Thus, He set up His guidebook - the Torah - to give us the boundaries of ”in bounds” and “out of bounds” for life. Circling back to Abarbanel’s approach, we can understand why he feels that we didn’t gain true freedom until Har Sinai. Even though we were no longer slaves to Paroh after Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, we didn’t achieve true freedom until we received the Torah. As we continue our count of Sefirah and march toward Shavu’ot, it is important to focus not on what the Torah forbids, but rather, to remember the way the Torah truly sets us free.