Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land
On July 8, 1776 the Liberty Bell was rung in Philadelphia to mark the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. On the side of the legendary cracked bell the famous inscription: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” This renowned saying is taken from a verse in this week’s Torah portion; yet that critical word “liberty” is, in fact, a mistranslation. The Hebrew word “dror” isn’t proclaiming “liberty,” rather it is calling for “release” or “amnesty.” Andthat is vastly different.
This biblical passage is concerned with the year of the jubilee. Reminiscent of the seven-week cycle of the Counting of the Omer, the Torah speaks of seven seven-year cycles when dealing with land ownership. At the end of this 49 year cycle the Torah states: “You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim amnesty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.” [Lev. 25:10] The Torah sets up a system to prevent enslavement. When a proprietor, falling on hard times, is forced to sell his land, the value of the property is based on how many years separate the time of the sale to the next jubilee year where, automatically, the land is to revert back to its original owner. “What is being sold,” the Torah explains, “is a number of harvests.” [Lev. 25:16] How does the Torah justify this process? It reminds us that we are but renters, temporary visitors on this planet: “For the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” [Lev. 25:23]
The same applies if one is to become the bound laborer of one’s neighbor. On the fiftieth year, there is to be an amnesty, private debts are cancelled, and he and his family are to be returned to their previous status in society. Why? Again the Torah reminds us: “For they are My servants, who I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.” [Lev. 25:42]
Henry George (1839-1897) was an American politician and economist who sourced from the Bible the inspiration for his economic philosophy. He wrote:
“Moses saw that the real cause of the enslavement of the masses in Egypt was what has everywhere produced enslavement, the possession by a class of the land upon which and from which the whole people must live. He saw that to permit in land the same unqualified private ownership… would be inevitably to separate people into the very rich and the very poor, inevitably to enslave labor… Everywhere in the Mosaic institutions is the land treated as the gift of the Creator… which no one has the right to monopolize… [Moses] tried hard to guard against the wrong that converted ancient civilizations into despotism… the wrong that is already filling American cities… There are many who believe that the Mosaic institutions were literally dictated by the Almighty, yet who would denounce as irreligious and ‘communistic’ any application of their spirit to the present day.”
Henry George might not have known it but he was also both a rabbi and a visionary. He powerfully captured the Torah’s warning against economic monopolies, against the concentration of financial power into too few hands which, inexorably, leads to the loss of the very freedom proclaimed by the Liberty Bell. Most critically, he recognized the Torah’s warning against creating societies devoid of Spirit, overrun by deified egos mainly concerned with securing the wealth and liberties of the few over the many. Ultimately, the “liberty” that Torah insists on and the Bell underscores is that which comes from wealth-redistribution and greater economic equality “throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”