This week’s parsha, Behar, located in the middle of the Book of Leviticus, also partly containing The Holiness Code in the Torah, places the Israelites, renewed from their freedom from Egyptian enslavement, at Mount Sinai.
In their efforts toward self-determination, we find them learning how to be a holy community as they continue their journey towards the fulfillment of the Biblical Covenant, i.e., to enter and dwell in the land of Israel.
The narrative begins with the laws of indentured servitude and land tenure, including, but not limited to an agricultural discussion of shmita, the Sabbatical year, which is required rest for the land every seven years, just as the weekly seventh day of creation is the weekly biblical day of Sabbath respite. The text continues with a discussion about the Yovel, the Jubilee observance, which occurs in year 50 during a seven times seven plus one cycle every half-century.
Embedded in that discussion are the words, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 25:10) The commanded broken blast of the shofar is a clarion wake-up call to action.
These words have a familiar ring to those of us living in America. Perhaps because we know them as the inscription emblazoned on the cracked Liberty Bell, which pealed thunderously after the historic signing of the Declaration of Independence. America is a symbol of freedom all over the world, and yet, sometimes we sleepily take these freedoms for granted. Perhaps we might at times be too complacent about rising up against challenges when they’ve been threatened, even though, as we are witnessing now, those freedoms that we assumed to be iron-clad, are not absolute.
The theme of freedom and independence resonates in the here and now in a world where there is an overwhelming radical dissonance on a plethora of issues embodying the intense values of freedom — COVID behavior, freedom in the Ukraine and other parts of the world, religious freedoms for all, freedom against antisemitism, race relations, climate change, LGBTQ rights, Israel and women’s agency over their own bodies — just to name a few.
This week’s Torah portion reminds us that we are all figuratively at a mountain at a place of choosing. Neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, writer and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
Through the chronicle of expected behaviors delineated in the Torah regarding shmita and Yovel observances relating to the Promised Land, we learn that the concepts about independence and choice pertain to the civility expected of humanity.
In one passage God reminds us, “The land is Mine; you are sojourners and residents with Me.” (Leviticus 25:23) Freedom, thus, as wayfarers on God’s land maintains an adherence to social and communal responsibility and activism, which, without exception, extends to all of God’s creations — land, animals and peoples. It is aspirational that we are to leave our world better and a more empathic place than when we entered into it.
Behar then comes to teach us about the values of reverence, social justice, cultural morality, caring for others, compassion, respecting differences and rising up against injustices in all of its iterations. Especially those of us to whom God has been generous, much is expected.
It is a manifesto to stop, listen and be transformed by performing acts of kindness and ma’asim tovim, good deeds. During the shmita and Yovel years, the Bible tells us that our debts are canceled. But the debt to our inheritance, to our people, to our families, to society, to humanity, and to those in need, can never be nullified. Freedom is not freedom from responsibility.
On the contrary, freedom embraces a deepened understanding of our personal and societal obligations as well as our accountability for heightened social consciousness. Klal Yisrael arevim zeh ba zeh, we learn. All of Israel is responsible, one for the other. This is a truth for our times and for all times.
Moving forward, I hope that we can all be mindful of the powerful message of the Yovel, and even though our Jewish calendar cycle is now closer to Shavuot than to Yom Kippur, I submit that we imagine hearing the shofar, described as a “sound beyond a sound,” as an ever-present reverberation, to pay mindful attention to the concept of freedom, Earth’s riches, and to all of the members of God’s sacred community who must share them. PJC
Rabbi Lynnda Targan is a community rabbi in Philadelphia and the co-founder of The Women’s Midrash Institute. This article is a service of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.