Torah for the Times  

Friday, May 3 - Iyar 23, 5773 

Torah Reading: Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34)
Candle Lighting Time: 7:36 PM

Shabbat ends: 8:41 PM  


Let Freedom Ring!

The Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is best known for two things: it is cracked and its inscription comes directly from this week’s parsha: "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."

This text is taken from the Torah’s description of the Jubilee year. In the days of the first Temple, before the Ten Tribes were exiled and when the entire Jewish nation resided in the Land of Israel, the Jewish people had to follow two related calendar cycles. The first is the Sabbatical year cycle (known as Shemittah) and the second is the fifty year Jubilee (Yovel) cycle. The law required that every seventh year the land would remain fallow and all of its vegetation declared free for all to take. The seventh Shmittah year was a Sabbatical year devoted to spiritual pursuits.

The Jubilee cycle required counting seven Sabbatical cycles and on the fiftieth year, holding a “Super” Sabbatical or “Jubilee” year. During the Jubilee year, in addition to the agricultural restrictions governing Sabbatical years, any “homestead lands” had to be returned to their original owners. To explain: when the Jews first entered Israel with Joshua, each family was given a parcel of land to work and live on. These lands were known as “Achuzah,” homesteads, and they were to stay within their respective families forever. Even if a person was in dire straits and needed to sell his plot of land for cash, the Torah tells us the sale could not be permanent. In the Jubilee year, that sold land would be returned back to its original owner.

In addition, the Jubilee year laws required release of all indentured servants. Even those that had stayed on after their initial six year term of indenture were to be released in the Jubilee. It is in thiscontext that the Torah declares: "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."

Liberty for All?

The famous Talmudic commentator Pnei Yehoshua asks why the Torah characterizes this year as a year of freedom for all its inhabitants? In actuality, in the Jubille, the only type of person who was set free was an eved ivri nirtza, a Hebrew indentured servant whose ear was bored with an awl because he refused to leave when the six years of servitude were over. This was a rather rare situation. In the first place, only people who were so poor that they had to sell themselves as servants or thieves unable to make restitution became indentured servants. The overwhelming majority of Jews were never indentured servants.

Furthermore, for the vast majority of indentured servants, their term of servitude ended after 6 years. Only in the rare case of a servant who did not wish to leave his master’s house, did the Torah require that he have his ear pierced with an awl – and he would then remain working for his master until the Jubilee year when “liberty would be proclaimed” and he would be let free. Again, we must assume that very few people were ever sold into servitude, and of these, no doubt a miniscule number voluntarily stayed on as servants until the Jubilee. So why does the Torah say “Proclaim liberty… for ALL of its inhabitants?” How would the release of a handful of servants bring freedom to all inhabitants?

Who’s Boss?

Pnei Yehoshua provides us with a partial answer. The Talmud states that a person who purchased an indentured servant was actually buying a master for himself. For example, if the master had only one pillow, the Halachah says that he would have to give it to his servant. If he had one steak he would have to give that to his servant as well. Hence, when the servant was freed it actually brought freedom to his master as well. Thus when the eved ivri nirtza, the Jewish slave with the pierced ear, was let free, his master became free as well.

Although this does not fully answer our question, since the majority of Jews did not have indentured servants in their employ, it nevertheless carries an important lesson for anyone who is in power and able to exercise control over others.

A parent, teacher, employer, seller, leader or anyone else who is on the giving end of a relationship or transaction is, in one way or another, in control of the other person’s life. He or she must recognize an obligation to treat his or her “underling” not only as an equal but as his or her master. The vaunted role as a person in whom power is vested only comes with the immense responsibility towards those who serve you. Thus, only when your “servant” is free are you also free; while he or she is under your control you are burdened and privileged with special responsibilities towards that person.

Freedom for All

There is a deeper way of explaining the reference to freedom “for all its inhabitants” that carries a special message for us today. As long as there is one isolated Jew who is not totally free, then no Jew is truly free.

We are an organic and interdependent people. What affects one Jew in any part of the world affects every Jew. However, the connection between Jews is more pronounced with regard to the idea of freedom. A simple analogy can illustrate this point. If a person is tied to a prison cell by just one small chain attached to one finger it is no less a form of confinement than if the entire body was behind bars. The entire Jewish nation is likened to one body. If one organ of this body is attached to galus then all of the Jewish people are in galus.


Since everything that we hear or see has to teach us a lesson, as the Ba’al Shem Tov taught us, the above can serve as an explanation for the cracked Liberty Bell. Liberty that doesn’t include everyone may be sweet for those who are free but there will always be a fissure in that Liberty Bell.

That crack should remind us that no matter how good things might be for some in galus, materially and spiritually, we are still very much in galus.

The question can still be asked: Why is this powerful lesson expressed specifically with respect to the Jubilee year?

Fifty Gates of Holiness

Fifty is a significant number.

The Torah was given fifty days after the Jews were liberated from Egypt. Their freedom was not complete, however, until they received the Torah and became a nation with a G‑dly purpose. Hence, we can see that the number fifty is related to the idea of complete and absolute freedom.

But that just shifts the question to ask of the giving of the Torah, why was it given after fifty days?

Kabbalah and Chassidic philosophy teach us that there are fifty gates of holiness. The first forty nine are achievable with painstaking effort. However the fiftieth gate of holiness is far more elusive. We cannot pass through without Divine intervention. Thus, no matter how high we climb or how many gates we transit, we will always be frustrated because we realize that the final destination is beyond our unaided reach and grasp.

Indeed, the further we progress, the more acutely we feel our yearning for the ultimate level that we lack. When people are only on the first levels, they feel little need to climb to the top. They are usually content at the level they are on, having carved out a comfortable niche for themselves. When one reaches the 49th step of spirituality and connectivity to G‑d, however, he or she is “sick with love” and passion to attain the elusive 50thlevel.

It’s no coincidence that the Hebrew word for “sick” – choleh- has the numerical value of 49. The person who reaches that stage is lovesick for the ultimate experience of connection to G‑d’s elusive Essence.

As long as we have yet to master the fiftieth stage, we will feel that we are still very much like the beginner who has yet to take the first steps. Stage numbers one and forty-nine are equally light years behind the fiftieth stage.

Thus, it was only in the fiftieth - Jubilee year, when the Jewish people would have been granted a taste of the final stage of holiness, that the Torah speaks of freedom for all. As long as we have not attained the fiftieth step, we cannot feel that we are free; there is still a mighty barrier between our achievements and that which is still unattained. That feeling persists because we are still in a confined state of spiritual existence. In addition, only the person who feels that he or she remains in galus from not yet having attained the fiftieth level is also sensitive to the fact that others are mired in an even deeper galus. The contented individual is usually impervious to the suffering of others.

It is no wonder that the Hebrew word for “all” – “kol”- in the verse “Proclaim liberty for all” has the numerical value of fifty.

We Want it All!

The “twin” lessons we learn from the above are that: 1) no Jew is truly free until all of the Jewish people have attained total physical and spiritual freedom; and 2) no Jew is free without rising above the constraints of even the loftiest spiritual levels associated with the number 49.

In practical terms this means that no matter how good this galus has been for any individual, the fact that: a) there are others who are still suffering, and b) we haven’t reached the ultimate fiftieth stage of holiness means that we still have our work cut out for us. We must sincerely and forcefully “demand” that we be taken out of the stifling state of galus.

There are some who, unfortunately, confuse the idea that we have to be thankful to G‑d for all that we have with being in a state of contentment and complacency. While we must thank G‑d for every small blessing we enjoy, as we do countless times daily, we must also plead and demand that He bring an end to the suffering and pain associated with galus and the limits it imposes on us.

Let us not be like a beggar who wins the lottery and then spends his newly acquired millions to build elevators in high-rise buildings so he shouldn’t have to climb the stairs to beg ….

Our generation has won the lottery in so many ways. We are so much more fortunate than our forebears in terms of our prosperity and the opportunities we have to study Torah and perform Mitzvos. We should not use these gifts to feel comfortable remaining in galus, even in its most benign form.

Let us not rest until it can be said that, indeed, unadulterated liberty was proclaimed throughout all the land unto all its inhabitants. Let us not rest until the crack in the process of Redemption (the ultimate Liberty Bell) will be made whole forevermore.


 Moshiach Matters 

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 11:3) says that the future Redeemer will be revealed, then concealed, then revealed again. This is quoted by the Chatam Sofer on the Torah at the end of the Torah portion of Exodus. He writes: "This is a great test that the Redeemer [Moshe] is concealed...and so it will be at the time of our righteous Moshiach; he will be concealed after his revelation, as mentioned in the Midrash."

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