PROCLAIM LIBERTY – B’har – Lev.25:1—26:2, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
By far the most famous words in this week’s Torah reading are the ones engraved on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” Certainly an inspiring message for a newly independent nation! Actually, in their original context, they do not mandate anything political at all.
As we read this section, we see a society that is first of all agricultural and secondly hereditary. Ever since Joshua conquered the country, each family’s property was established, and was intended to remain that way permanently. No family farm could be legally pulled away from its ancestral owners. If one owner fell into debt for any reason, he could sell his crop to a wealthier tribesman, who would then operate his farm – but only until the next Jubilee year. And the Jubilee comes every 50 years, so if the farm is “sold” in year 30, the sale is only good for 20 years. So it is mandated in this reading.
Similarly, if a poor Jew in ancient Israel sold himself into indentured servitude, his master had to release him when the Jubilee year rolled around.
The Hertz commentary points out that these laws helped prevent the land and the people from becoming subservient to a privileged class. Less debt means more equality. The Torah does not state that, but it is worth considering.
Last week, we were instructed to count days. 7 days times 7 weeks for the time between Passover and Shavuot, which occurs on the 50th day. Now we get a parallel instruction to count years. Every 7th year is a Sabbatical, a year off for the land – too bad the land cannot spend that year in Hawaii – but after 7 Sabbatical years comes the Jubilee, which means no planting and no reaping for two full years, the 49th and the 50th. In this connection, the Torah promises a blessing on the 6th year of that cycle – effectively year #48 – that will see the land producing enough to feed its owners for 3 years. During the Jubilee year, says the Torah, you don’t need to work the land or bring in a harvest. Just “eat from the field.” Any field, whether it is legally yours or not. Questions about this custom abound. Did our ancestors really observe it? After all, the limitation on transfer of property only applied to agricultural property. A house in a walled city could be sold permanently. In Israel today, shmitah produce – what grows during the Sabbatical years – is banned for religious people, and you see labels that declare “not made with Shmitah ingredients.” Jubilee years present an even greater problem.
And now back to the Liberty Bell. We are instructed to announce the Jubilee year on Yom Kippur by sounding the Shofar. Why then? After all, the year started on Rosh Hashanah, 10 days earlier. And what kind of liberty are we proclaiming?
The sage Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel compared the Day of Atonement to the day Israel received the Torah. Just as accepting the Torah could free the people from the Evil Urge and its punishments, so Yom Kippur is the day of freedom from that old foolish vengeful enemy king called Satan, who is the Evil Urge, and all this is to remind each of us to keep the Day of Freedom always before our eyes.
What is our kind of liberty? No longer a year just to eat what we find because we must not grow crops. It is, this year and every year, individually and collectively, the vision of freedom from evil. And Yom Kippur will be the perfect day to proclaim it. Let that T’kiah g’dolah at the end of next Yom Kippur remind us: every year can be our spiritual Jubilee.