Friday, May 16, 2008

Free at Fifty

The study of p’shat, the straightforward meaning of the Torah text, is a pursuit which can supply a lifetime of study, wisdom and inspiration. However, Torah study is not limited to this approach. P’shat is only one of the Torah’s multiple universes. Sometimes, the fa├žade of p’shat cracks and the Torah’s deeper dimensions come to the fore.

This week’s parsha begins with the mitzvah of Shmitah, the Sabbatical year.

When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a Shabbat to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbatical Shabbat for the land.

Vayikra 25:2-3

The Torah continues with Yovel, the Jubilee year.

You shall count seven sabbatical years, that is, seven times seven years. The period of the seven sabbatical cycles shall thus be forty-nine years. You shall make a proclamation with the ram’s horn... You shall sanctify the fiftieth year declaring emancipation of [Hebrew] slaves for the land and all who live in it. This is your jubilee year, when each man shall return to his hereditary property and to his family.

Ibid 25:8-9,10

After counting seven Shmitah periods, we arrive at Yovel, the fiftieth and final year of the cycle. Jews who sold themselves into slavery to escape poverty or were sold as slaves to pay off debts incurred by stealing are released and return home. Similarly, hereditary fields that had been sold during the course of the past fifty years return to their original owners on Yovel. Everything returns to its default position. It’s as if someone hit the reset button.

It is virtually impossible to study these mitzvot without bringing to mind a mitzvah from last week’s parsha.

You shall count seven complete weeks after the day following the [Passover] holiday… until the day after the seventh week, when there will be [a total of] fifty days… This very day shall be celebrated as a sacred holiday…

Ibid 23:15-16,21

This is the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer, a mitzvah to count the days from the Exodus on Passover to the revelation at Sinai on Shavuot fifty days later. (This Shabbat is the twenty-seventh day of the Omer.)

The Omer count follows the exact same pattern as the Yovel cycle! In both we are instructed to count sets of seven days/years seven times. And then, the following day/year, the fiftieth, is sanctified. Moreover, just as a ram’s horn was blown on Yovel, the fiftieth year, a ram’s horn was also blown at Sinai on Shavuot, the fiftieth day. “There was the sound of a ram’s horn, increasing in volume to a great degree…” (Shemot 19:19). What are we to make of all this? Do these cycles share a deeper commonality?

This isn’t going to be easy.

In the Yovel cycle, Jewish slaves are freed on the fifty year. We count the years leading up to their freedom. This is quite the opposite from the Omer cycle where the counting begins after the Jews gain their freedom from enslavement in Egypt. It would seem that the two sanctified fifties, Yovel and Shavuot, have nothing in common.

P’shat isn’t providing answers, so we turn to the Mishnah for assistance.

The only person who is free is the one who toils in the study of Torah.

Ethics of the Fathers 6:2

The Torah sets us free. This explains everything! Shavuot is the day we got the Torah at Sinai and we became free, just like Yovel!

Great. But free from what? Didn’t we leave Egypt fifty days earlier?

The Torah is throwing a wrench into our understanding of Jewish history. Maybe we didn’t gain total freedom at the Exodus. Maybe we were still enslaved to something for forty-nine more days until we were truly emancipated on Shavuot. But what could that something be?

The answer is right before our eyes, but we would prefer not to face it. With the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot we were freed from self-enslavement. For as long as Torah is lacking, as long as objective truth and mitzvot are missing from the world, man is destined to be the slave of his own negative drives. Without the system of Judaism to elevate us, in the absence of the service the God, we are left with nothing more than the service of the self.

It turns out that the two fifties, Yovel and Shavuot, are identical. What happens on Yovel? The Jewish slave, a man who is the sole cause of his own slavery, is set free. A hereditary field, which was sold by the owner himself, returns to where it belongs. This is the very same power of Shavuot. The Torah frees man from his self-imposed slavery and returns him to his true self.

On Pesach we gained physical freedom, but we were still slaves. By counting the days of the Omer we recognize that we need more than an Exodus, we need a deeper kind of freedom. A freedom that can only be found fifty days later on a hill called Sinai.