Behar-Behukotay (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

Waiting for freedom to come takes many forms.

It is understandable that when I write about freedom most people may immediately think of traumatic political situations around the globe, such as the tragedy of Darfur or the long-running struggle for independence from the Chinese that the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan followers have experienced for decades. Obviously, I am personally involved politically in numerous similar causes and would not for a moment diminish the pain and deadly seriousness of those and other struggles for political freedom around the world.

But as I read the Torah portion this week my mind, as it often does, wandered back to my childhood and what symbolized the ultimate expression of freedom in my youth. How could I not remember the ache of anticipation that I and all my 15-year-old friends felt day after day as we approached our 16th birthdays and what we considered the grand prize of teenage-hood: a driver’s license. It was without question our ultimate symbol of freedom and liberation, and waiting for that freedom to come was an excruciatingly slow process for us all.

Naturally we did everything possible to prepare for the big event – first talking our parents (usually our dads) into taking us out on deserted roads or large, empty parking lots and teaching us the basics of what to do behind the wheel. Then we had to take “driver’s education” classes, and in those days we all learned how to drive a manual transmission. And then? Then all we could do….was wait.

Indeed, freedom never seems to come soon enough for those with longing for liberation in their hearts. I lived through the heyday of the ’60s and knew all too well that “real” freedom wasn’t about my driver’s license (I turned 16 in 1965), but about the struggle for civil rights, freedom rides in the South, marching against the Vietnam War, protesting against the powerful interests of agribusiness in California by joining with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in their grape boycott. Powerful issues. Life-changing moments.

I learned firsthand during that era as a student leader of protests and marches and sit-ins what standing up for freedom was all about – from late-night negotiations with the administration of my college about divestments from South African apartheid, to small delegations of activist students who met in protest with Governor Reagan in his office in Sacramento, to organizing rallies in support of the “People’s Park” in Berkeley. And I know that this passion for freedom in all its manifestations – from the most public and political to the most intimate and personal – is a fundamental aspect of our very humanness.

This, after all, is why in the Torah our ancestors were wise enough to depict God himself (sic) not only as the source of creation but even more importantly as the power of liberation. We celebrate the Exodus every day in our prayers. We sing the song of crossing the sea from slavery to freedom at every Jewish religious service. We echo the cry of “Let my people go” in every generation, and we know in the essence of our beings that whatever power in the universe animated life itself is the same power that has placed the seeds of redemption within every human soul.

So this week, as we read in our Torah portion that stirring phrase that is inscribed in the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia – “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10) – may it resonate to the very core of our being and may we never give up faith until every human on earth can experience the same intoxication of freedom that Martin Luther King so beautifully captured in his prayer-filled cry, “Free at last…Thank God almighty we are free at last.”

And of course, never forget that for some of us of a certain age it is still the lure of sitting behind that wheel that represents the greatest symbol of freedom that our young brains can possibly imagine. I remember and I smile.

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