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B’har – B’chukotai

Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

On July 8, 1776, the Liberty Bell was rung in Philadelphia to mark the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” says the inscription on the legendary bell with the famous crack. It’s a moving quotation from this week’s Torah portion (Lev. 25:10), but the truth is that it was taken out of context and the critical word “liberty” is a mistranslation. The Hebrew word dror isn’t proclaiming “liberty”; rather, it is calling for “release” or “amnesty.” And that is a different matter altogether.

This passage in Parashat B’har is concerned with the year of the jubilee. Reminiscent of the seven-week cycle of the Counting of the Omer, Torah speaks in terms of sevens when dealing with land ownership: for six years you may plant and harvest your acreage, but in the seventh year you must allow the land to rest. After seven of these cycles, i.e., after 49 years, you shall “hallow” the 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)

Interestingly, the jubilee commandment to “hallow” is not about the land, but about the years of ownership or occupation. In this way, it sets up a system of social justice to prevent permanent poverty and enslavement. For example, if a proprietor falls on hard times and is forced to sell his land, the value of the property is based on how many years remain before the next jubilee year, when the land will revert to its original owner automatically. “What is being sold,” the Torah explains, “is a number of harvests” (Lev. 25:16). As for the land itself, it must never be sold beyond reclaim, “For the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25:23). We may think we own our little plots of land, but in the grand scheme of things we are but renters, temporary visitors on this planet.

The same jubilee principle applies if one becomes a bound laborer. On the fiftieth year, amnesty is declared, private debts are cancelled, and the bondman and his family should be returned to their previous status in society. Why? Again the Torah reminds us: “For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude” (Lev. 25:42).

Back in a period of American history known as the Progressive Era (1880s to 1920s), the social-justice teachings of this week’s Torah portion informed a number of movements to reform the usurious practices of the robber barons and “captains of industry.” At the head of many of these movements was the politician and economist Henry George (1829-1897), whose writing could almost be titled “B’har Redux.” Though not a Jew, he was very much a rabbi who based his visionary teachings on what he called deistic humanitarianism. He powerfully captured the Torah’s warning against economic monopolies and the concentration of financial power into too few hands, which leads inexorably to loss of the very freedom proclaimed by the Liberty Bell. On the subject of land reform 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.” (H. George, Moses – Apostle of Freedom, 1878)

Most critically, George recognized the Torah’s warning against creating societies devoid of Spirit, overrun by deified egos bent on 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.”