Torah and Liberty

On a recent outing with my students to visit the extraordinary National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, we took a short detour to the Liberty Bell Center, which sits conveniently across Independence Mall from the NMAJH.  There is tremendous symbolism to the balance of the particular story of the Jewish people in America and the universal message of the Liberty Bell.  I asked my students to find the link between the two sites, why their rabbi cared that they visit the Liberty Bell.  It didn’t take them long to figure it out, as they concluded: “There’s Torah on the Bell!”

There it is in clear relief: “‘Proclaimliberty throughout all the land unto all the Inhabitants thereof (Lev. XXV:X).’”  Commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s Charter, established as a haven for anyone persecuted on religious grounds, the Liberty Bell has come to symbolize that and so much more.  The varied faces and accents, the skin tones and modes of dress of those with us in line to visit the Bell testify to the ongoing project of maintaining and protecting liberty in the United States of America.

But it does all begin with Torah — specifically the verse that comes toward the beginning of our double portions this Shabbat,Behar-Bechukotai.  In context, this section is the only place in Torah with explicit instructions for the Jubilee Year.  The celebration in the 50th year includes a restoration of land and people, a set of laws to ensure that no Israelite would become permanently enslaved or landless.  The verses read: “You shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and 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 your holding and each of you shall return to your family.”

The lesson we are meant to understand from the Jubilee is solidified in the lines that follow, where it is emphasized that while land (and even human beings) may be “sold,” they ultimately belong only to the One who gives both land and life their beginnings — “for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”

The commentator P’nei Yehoshua (17th century) makes a beautiful observation about these famous lines.  He writes: “The verse certainly should have read, ‘Proclaim release to all the slaves, not inhabitants.’”  What does this come to teach?  That any country in which there is not freedom, even for a very small number of the inhabitants of the land, all of the inhabitants are slaves.  One feels freedom only when there is total freedom in the land.  Slavery is a plague, striking both slave and master together. Therefore, “proclaim release to all the inhabitants” — and only through release of the slaves will the inhabitants of the land be free.

We are called upon to continue to ask the question: Just how universal is this freedom we enjoy?  Even as we reflect on the tremendous and unprecedented story told across the lawn at the National Museum of American Jewish History, we must continue to proclaim liberty, to bring release to those enslaved in our land and to remember Martin Luther King Jr. channeling P’nei Yehoshua: “Until all are free, none are free.”

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Craig Axler is the spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton.