Arctic peoples have many words for snow—white snow, blue snow, snow that makes you sick of snow. Come to our area of the Middle East, and the Bedouin will tell you that they have multiple words for sand—wispy sand, thick sand, quicksand. Central Asian peoples are said to have no less than a thousand words for camel. For the record, none of them is Joe.
As any anthropologist knows, people invent a great many words for those things they have in abundance. On the contrary, they will have few words for those things they lack—sometimes even no word. Some tropical tribes, I’m told, have no word for ice.
But we Jews are different. We have many words for the very thing which we often did not have. For much of the last four thousand years, we were suppressed, exiled, and deported. We were slaves in Egypt, strangers in Babylon, prisoners in ghettos, and mere numbers in the Nazi death camps. And yet, open any Hebrew dictionary and you’ll discover that we have not one but several words for…freedom.
Chofesh means freedom (it also means vacation, something we really need). In the Israeli national anthem we just sang, Hatikvah, we express our yearning to be am chofshi b’artzenu, a free nation in our homeland.
Shichrur, often translated as “release,” can also suggest liberation. Shichrur m’pachad means freedom from fear. Ptor can mean exempt or immune but also free, such as in the term ptor m’mas—a very important term meaning “tax free.” On Passover, at our Seder table, we refer to ourselves as bnei horin, free men and women. Once, it was even a popular Jewish name. Remember the movie Ben Hur? Son of a Free Man. Indeed, the Hebrew root, H-U-R, is the core of our most common word for freedom, Herut. It is also the root of the Arabic word for freedom, huriyyah and of an Arabic place name that has become world-famous: Tahrir Square.
Israel is an independent nation—medinah atzma’it. Atzmaut also denotes freedom. Today, is Yom Haatzmaut, the Day of Our Independence, our freedom to be masters of our own fate.
The question is: why would Jews develop so many words for the freedom so frequently denied them? The answer lies at the very juncture between Jewish faith and Jewish peoplehood.
In the Bible, the Jewish people have to be freed from slavery before they could receive the Law. Only a free people, the Bible implies, can make the moral choices needed to fulfill the law. And only upon receiving the Law, can the Jews truly merge into a people.
Freedom, in Judaism, is not only a personal prerequisite, it is a national necessity. It’s not enough to wander freely in the desert for forty years. Rather, the Jewish people must also wield political freedom in their own land. Only then, can they make the truly tough moral choices. Must we go to war? At what price can we make peace? How do we create a just and caring society?
A similar yearning for freedom brought the Jews to this country. They, too, were escaping persecution, seeking not only religious freedom but also the right to participate in forging their own destiny. They achieved that right in America, but America was a rare exception. In Russia’s Pale of Settlement, in the Venetian ghetto, and the North African mellahs, freedom remained a distant dream.
In their longing, many Jews turned their eyes not westward but to the East, to their ancestral homeland—the Land of Israel. Many became Zionists, striving to achieve the same rights enjoyed by Americans but to enjoy them, as Jews, in a sovereign Jewish state.
The effort was gargantuan. Swamps had to be drained, borders defended, and nearly two million immigrants absorbed. Yet, in establishing their freedom in a hostile Middle East, the Zionists looked for inspiration not to the East but to the West.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence, enacted on May 14, 1948, evokes America’s Declaration of Independence. Israel’s declaration pledges to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all of its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Our declaration vows to “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture” to all of Israel’s citizens.
Three thousand years after their liberation from Egyptian slavery; a mere three years after the liberation of Auschwitz, a free Jewish state was born.
We live in a time of miracles. Think about it: For the first time in a great many centuries, the vast majority of Jews in the world live in freedom. We can be anything we want to be: jurists, educators, scientists, rock stars, prime ministers and, yes, even presidents.
But in achieving that freedom, we must also bear freedom’s obligations. Through our votes and our voices, we must decide whether or not our nations should send our sons and daughters to defend our liberty. We must work to ensure that minority groups enjoy the same rights that we have attained. We must make decisions that can often seem unbearable.
In Israel this year we had to decide whether to exchange more than a thousand terrorist prisoners in order to secure the release of one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, held hostage by Hamas for more than five years. We made that decision, and we are happy that Gilad was able to spend this Independence Day reunited with his family.
That decision reflected the hallowed Jewish principle of pidyon shvuyyim. The redemption of captives. Here is yet another Hebrew word for freedom—Pidyon—to cause to be free. In Israel, we made that hard decision. We caused Gilad Shalit to be free. And in doing so, we reaffirmed our own freedom.
As President Barack Obama recently declared, “only a sovereign Israel has the right to defend itself against all Middle Eastern threats,” and there are many. We not only have that right, we have the duty.
Much like in the Arctic, the desert, and the Asian steppes, people invent many words for that which they have in abundance. Not surprisingly, the English-speaking peoples, the pioneers of modern democracy, have many words for what they have long enjoyed. Autonomy, self-determination, independence, sovereignty—all are synonymous with freedom. So, too, is perhaps the most precious word in this country. That word is liberty.
The Statue of Liberty in New York, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia—these are the timeless symbols of American freedom. And fittingly, the Statue of Liberty is inscribed with the verse penned by Emma Lazarus—“give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The same Emma Lazarus founded the first Zionist society in the United States.
The Liberty Bell is inscribed with the verse from the Book of Leviticus, “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land.” In Leviticus, the word for liberty is dror, which, in Hebrew, also means sparrow. The connection is clear: dror, free as a bird. Today we can proudly say today, dror, as free as the people of Israel to make our own decisions, fashion our own society, and determine our own future.
Yes, we have many words for that which we historically had least. But today, as we celebrate the 64th anniversary of our creation, the State of Israel needs no more than one: freedom.