We complete the book of Leviticus this week with the combined portions B'har and B'chukotai. These chapters present a vision of a society guided by God-given principles of human freedom, human dignity and concern for the most vulnerable in society. Sabbatical and Jubilee years are discussed, and Leviticus concludes with a series of blessings and curses, underscoring the stakes of the Israelite covenant with God.
Our passage comes from the first aliyah:
[A]nd you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. (25:10)
During the Jubilee year, Yovel in Hebrew, the Torah requires that Israelite slaves are released from their masters, returned to their ancestral homes and land holdings. America's Founding Fathers found the passage so inspiring that they applied it to our fledgling nation's own statement of purpose, inscribing on the Liberty Bell, "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof Lev. XXV X."
The institution of the Yovel incorporates two dominant, interrelated themes: freedom, which the passage commands explicitly, and remembrance, which the passage implies. Medieval commentators illuminated a Jewish understanding of "freedom" by parsing the terms d'ror ("freedom" or "liberty," in our translation "release") and Yovel ("Jubilee"), both of which occur in this verse, but relatively infrequently throughout the Bible. Rashi (France, 11th Century) teaches that d'ror derives from a word meaning "to reside," observing that a free person is privileged to dwell where he wishes, free from any other person's control. (In Modern Hebrew, a domicile or apartment is called a dirah, from the same root.) And Ramban (Nachmanides, Spain, 13th Century), contributes to our understanding by relating the word Yovel to yuval, meaning "shall come" or "shall be transported," implying that the free person may come and go as s/he pleases. Freedom incorporates a sense of home and the ability to roam at will. The release of slaves is an act of humanity that yields dignity. It serves as a reminder that all of us ultimately serve only one Master, God.
The Jewish ideal of freedom derives from a collective Jewish remembrance of our slavery in Egypt. Three times in the very short portionof B'har, The Torah reminds us that no Israelite may serve another in perpetuity, because God redeemed the Israelites from Egypt to serve God alone. (cf. 25:42, 25:46, 25:55) Our ritualized narration of slavery, suffering and oppression at the hands of a human master (for instance, at the Passover Seder or in Shabbat Kiddush) embeds freedom in memory. Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924 - 2000) eloquently summarizes the connection between themes: "To remember is a kind of hope." We draw from the reservoir of Jewish experience in order to empathize with others who are not yet free.
I recently had the special privilege to share in the interplay between memory and freedom by spending the holidays of Yom Ha-Zikaron and Yom Ha-Atzma'ut in Israel. Yom Ha-Zikaron commemorates Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror. Evoking the shofar blast of old, sirens wailed throughout the land, ushering in a day of solemnity and open grief. One by one, cars pulled to the side of the road as the siren blared, the drivers standing in silent remembrance of their fallen loved ones, friends and unknown soldiers who had died protecting the nation they so cherish. Five and a half million Jews presently reside in Israel. More than 22,000 have died protecting Israel in its fifty-eight years of independence. No one in Israel lives untouched by the death of a relative or friend in defense of the state.
After the sun sets on the Day of Remembrance, another siren blares to separate tears from laughter. Israelis flood the streets to celebrate Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, Independence Day. I stood among young people draped in Israeli flags, singing and dancing in the public squares of Jerusalem, running down the streets spraying Silly String and making merry with giant inflatable hammers that squeak when they strike. The celebration continues the next day with bonfires and picnics in every public park and beach. Walking down the streets, in addition to the sounds of music, stories of freedom and sacrifice fill the airwaves. Exuberant joy makes the perfect counterpoint to the heartfelt tributes of Yom Ha-Zikaron. In these back-to-back national observances, Israelis perfectly summarize the theme of the passage we are studying: the intimate link between memory and freedom that inheres in Jewish tradition of the Yovel.
For those of us living in America, the Israeli observances of Yom Ha-Zikaron and Yom Ha-Atzma'ut present a challenge to those of us who are living in the United States. Memorial Day in America is observed this year on May 29th. Independence Day comes 5 weeks and one day later, on July 4th. These two days could enable Americans to commemorate the price of freedom and celebrate its prize. However, I observe with regret that their significance is lost on too many Americans. They have become days of shopping mall sales and cookouts, vacation days devoid of memory and hope. Let us be inspired by Torah to appreciate our freedom as Jews and as Americans, by remembering the past and anticipating an even freer, sweeter future for all.
- How does remembering your past help to make you free, or help you to value your freedom? Consider the inverse: can failing to remember your past enslave you?
- Compare the Israeli Declaration of Independence, with America's Declaration of Independence. Identify similarities and differences. What do these similarities and differences reflect about the similarities and differences in these respective nations?
- What sorts of public and private rituals or observances could we promote in America to deepen the meaning of Memorial Day and Independence Day, and ordinary Americans' attachments to these holidays?
For Further Learning
Read the following poem by Yehuda Amichai and discuss the message for Independence Day.
A hymn for Independence Day. So distant,
Yet everything still remembered, like the echo of steps
Whose bodies long ago turned to dust in the Negev.
The trumpets I hear now, are not for me anymore.
Even their warm breath is not for me.
And the remembered dust turned into forgetting fields.
Builders and destroyers meet at my home in the evening
To sit all night on the porch
Watching the fireworks that are
The colorful sighs of the Jewish people.
Let us not talk about the famous six million,
Let us talk about the eleven who remained,
Let us talk about one of them,
I am a man-hill.
Yet in all my strata
B’har, Leviticus 25:1-26:2
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 940-957; Revised Edition, pp. 849-860;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 747-764