Count off seven sabbath years — seven times seven years — so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. (Leviticus 25:8-10)
In this week's portion, the Jubilee year is established. Called yovel, our parashah explains how every forty-nine years — seven weeks of seven years — in the seventh month, on Yom Kippur, the shofar of freedom is to be sounded throughout the land for all its inhabitants. This iconic verse to proclaim freedom throughout the land is inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
We know of the shofar that is sounded on Rosh HaShanah, when in the Un'taneh Tokef prayer we remind ourselves that "the great shofar will be sounded, and a still small voice will be heard; angels will hasten and a great trembling will happen . . ."
In our Reform liturgy there are three sets of blasts right after the Torah service in the morning — Malchuyot, establishing God as Ruler; Zichronot, hoping that God will "remember;" and the third, Shofarot, the messianic hope that God will "sound the great shofar to proclaim our freedom," as promised by the prophet Isaiah. This third set of blasts refers back to the giving of the Torah at Sinai where the sound of the shofar was heard amid great thunder and lightning.
And then, once more during the holy days, as Yom Kippur is coming to a close, and we are all so tired and hungry, the sun begins to set, we shout "Sh'ma Yisrael" and we blow the shofar and rejoice. This final shofar blowing on Yom Kippur is symbolic of the shofar blown to proclaim the yovel, which is symbolic of the great shofar of freedom that will be sounded in the messianic era.
Thus shofar, Revelation, and freedom are all interconnected. There is no Torah without freedom. There is no freedom without Torah. And these two interwoven necessities are proclaimed by the one instrument, which is present when we receive Torah, and is present again when we let all slaves go free and return our property holdings to their original owners. And it will be present on the day when there is no need to any longer free the slaves because all will be free forever.
The parashah tells us that this fiftieth year is hallowed, using the same Hebrew root (kuf-dalet-shin) that we use for hallowing the Sabbath or the holidays. The year of freedom is a holy year, in which human beings are once again restored to their rightful place in the universe as valued, respected individuals created in God's image, no person a slave to another. The year of freedom is a Sabbath of the soul for the whole society. We are commanded to see the whole year in special relationship to each other as humans. We have sanctified time before, through rituals we do or blessings we make — candles, wine, challah. But now, in yovel, we sanctify time through the relationships we foster and fix; by righting power imbalances and recalibrating our attachment to possessions.
The Israelites are instructed to count those cycles of seven carefully. Last week, in Parashat Emor, we read the commandment to count forty-nine days of the Omer, seven weeks of seven days, leading to the festival of Shavuot on the fiftieth day. This week, in Parashat B'har, we are commanded to count seven times again — seven times seven years. We read Parashat B'har during these unique days of counting the Omer in the Jewish calendar; we see just how important the "countdown" to freedom is. Freedom is something you work toward. We read of ultimate societal freedom — the yovel — as we count personal freedom — the Omer.
Counting the Omer from Passover to Shavuot should connect the dots from physical freedom to spiritual freedom. The ultimate freedom in the Torah is to leave Egypt — bondage to other people — and arrive at Sinai — relationship with God. And the ultimate goal of that relationship with God is to form correct and just relationships with each other. The Torah demands we do that in small ways; then in the fiftieth year we do it large-scale. Freedom in Judaism is not freedom from, it is freedom to. There is no freedom for one if there is no freedom for all. Thus the Omer should help us count toward yovel; personal freedom obligates us to demand societal freedom for all.
In Pirkei Avot 6:2, Rabbi Y'hoshua ben Levi quotes the verse in Exodus 32:16: "The Tablets [with the Ten Commandments] were the word of God, and the writing was the writing of God engraved (charut) on the Tablets." Says Rabbi Y'hoshua, "Do not read charut (engraved) but cheirut (freedom), for there is no free person except one who occupies themselves with the study of Torah."
And that study leads to action.
Thus as Jews, we should be counting down to the day when the great shofar of freedom will be sounded for all, not just in the fiftieth year and not just from Pesach to Shavuot. And while we are waiting to hear that shofar blast, we should constantly be acting upon our obligation to make that day happen soon.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the founding rabbi of City Shul, downtown Toronto's new Reform congregation. Before that, for twenty years, she was the director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning. She is the author/editor of four books on women and Judaism (published by Jewish Lights Publishing).
While last week's parashah, Emor, contains a command for the people to keep Shabbat, resting every seventh day, B'har continues with the theme of rest by introducing the sabbatical year, a period of revitalization for the land, set to occur every seven years. It isn't until we set a precedent of rest for humanity and for the earth that we can arrive at the observance of the Jubilee year, distinguished as a time of release, a time when all the earth and the people who dwell on it can return to a more natural state of being, free of external burdens, able to connect more fully to God and the sources of holiness in their lives.
As Rabbi Goldstein notes, the Jubilee year is ushered in with the sounding of the shofar, an action so central to this sacred occasion that the year is called yovel, the very meaning of which is "ram's horn."1
In explaining the origin of the shofar, Midrash, Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the two horns of the ram offered as a sacrifice in place of Isaac in the story of the Akeidah were to be sounded at significant moments throughout Jewish history: The left horn, which was smaller than the right, was blasted to usher in the moment of Revelation at Sinai. The right horn, which was the bigger of the two, is destined to be sounded in the future to usher in the world to come, a time likened to a continuous Shabbat, perhaps a model that the Jubilee year strives to emulate.2
While the attributes of the Jubilee year go into effect with the sounding of the shofar on Yom Kippur, the year itself begins days earlier on Rosh HaShanah, the celebration of the New Year, which is marked by its own shofar calls.
At each significant juncture of our lives, we have the possibility of two shofarot calling to us. However, in order to truly be receptive to the call of yovel we must attune our ears to the call of the first smaller blast. Release and revitalization don't simply happen without preparation. Just as the rest relating to Shabbat is an active rest requiring preparation and intention, in order to reach great periods of change in which we expect the entire world around us to be renewed, we must first focus inward and find the sources of our personal revitalization.
1. See Rashi on Leviticus 25:10
2. Midrash, Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 31
Rabbi Alexis Pinsky is the assistant rabbi at Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, Louisiana.
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