One of the most frequently quoted Biblical texts, especially beloved to Americans going all the way back to the period of their independence as a nation, is the phrase: “And you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land”. These formidable words were inscribed on the Liberty Bell, that icon of American history, which was hung in Philadelphia’s Assembly Hall on March 10, 1753. Yet, how many of us, Jew and Gentile alike, can actually tell you the biblical source for that quotation?
If you happen to be part of that rather large group unaware of the source, this week’s double Torah portion, Behar/B’Chukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34) will set your mind at ease. We find the source early on in Behar (Leviticus 25:10) as the Torah teaches us the principles of land tenure and the purpose of the sabbatical and jubilee years for the release of the land.
Interestingly, the American Founding Fathers were led to this particular Leviticus text because the occasion they were celebrating in 1751, the year the Pennsylvania Assembly ordered the Liberty Bell to be constructed, was the 50th anniversary of Governor William Penn’s famous “Charter of Privileges”, written in 1701 and destined to become the source for Pennsylvania’s original constitution. The key for the Pennsylvania lawmakers was the last words of Leviticus 25:9, “…and you shall hallow the fiftieth year”.
Perhaps most interesting of all, however, was the “liberty” the American Founding Fathers took in their interpretation/translation of the Hebrew word “Dror”, as liberty (referring to freedom and civil rights) where-as the clear meaning of the Biblical word “Dror” in this context was “release” with the meaning that all inhabitants of the land would be released from debts and servitude due to the onset of the jubilee (50th) year.
Interpretation of Biblical words and concepts can indeed make all the difference in understanding the meaning of scripture. Returning to the theme of the sabbatical and jubilee years, I believe a careful reading (interpretation) of our biblical text offers us a profound insight regarding how we should understand the ultimate meaning of the Land of Israel – Eretz Yisrael.
Our parasha explains the teaching that even the land is entitled to a seventh year sabbatical – release – when we are forbidden to work our fields. As human beings must have complete rest every seven days, so, too, must our land have complete rest every seven years. And, as we count 49 days from Pesach to Shavuot (the period of the counting of the Omer which, by the way, we are in at the present moment) so, too, do we count 49 years – seven times seven – leading us to the 50th year or jubilee year when the shofar will be sounded, all servitude and debts forgiven, and the land shall return to its original owner.
As Parashat Behar continues to explain the rules and regulations regarding the sabbatical and jubilee years, the text presupposes the question (challenge) by the people regarding such a radical message. At stake here was the very economic grounding of society – wealth was represented by ownership of land. Here was a teaching which, at its very core, was intended to prevent the accumulation of land in the hands of any one family or group in perpetuity. Here was a teaching which challenged the very notion that the land of Israel was the eternal private possession of the children of Israel.
And then we read the intriguing climax of this teaching; Leviticus 25:23, where God declares: “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine, you are but strangers resident with Me.” As if this message was not sufficiently clear, the parasha continues to make the same principled instruction regarding human beings (in the context of discussing slavery). When presenting the laws of servitude and the regulations regarding the release of indentured servants, we learn the powerful lesson that, ultimately, no man can be forever enslaved to another. Leviticus 25:55 says it clearly when God declares: “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants, they are My servants whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God.”
Here is one of the most profound lessons our Jewish tradition comes to teach us. We human beings are creations of the one God; we pass through this world “residing” with God, enjoying the bounties of the land and, at times, even powerful enough to “enjoy” the servitude of other human beings (at a historical time when such was the norm). But, we dare not, ever, consider ourselves to be all powerful as is God. He is the ultimate owner of all the land and its material benefit. He is the ultimate master of all human beings. And the sabbatical and jubilee years come to reinforce this critical message – this critical perspective on life.
The Founding Fathers lived at a time when “liberty throughout the land” spoke to the hearts and minds of an entire people struggling for personal freedom and national independence. They found in the Holy Scripture a solid foundation for that aspiration. Today, we members of the Jewish people – especially those of us privileged to be living on the Land, are also engaged in a struggle – a struggle to understand how to relate to the land of Israel – how to measure its sanctity and our historic claim on it while acknowledging the historic claim others make on it as well.
The issues regarding the land of Israel and the compromises we will surely need to make in order to reach a lasting peace with the Palestinians, will challenge each of us to the core. Might we find instruction, even solace, in the profound meaning of the sabbatical and jubilee years? Can we learn from our Torah reading that, in the final analysis, the land of Israel belongs ultimately to God and not to man – whether Jew or non Jew? Can we learn from our Torah reading that for the sake of a lasting peace, we may need to “release” parts of our land so that we might receive the blessing “of living on the land in security” (Leviticus 25:18)?
May we who love this land and who know that our claim on it is just and divinely sanctioned, have the courage to sound the shofar of hope for a day when liberty (release) shall be proclaimed throughout the land – so that our children, and the children of Ishmael as well, shall dwell together in peace and security.
So May it be God’s Will.
About the author: Rabbi Joel Oseran is the Vice President Emeritus of International Development at the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
The above formerly appeared as #15 in our Torah from Around the World series.