Envisioning the Jubilee in America

Parashat Behar — Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2

Parashat Behar contains a visionary statement about land ownership and social justice:

You shall count off seven weeks of years… so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud… 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 his holding and each of you shall return to his family. (Leviticus 25:8-10)

Put plainly, every 50 years in biblical Israel the land would revert to its original owner, ensuring that no landowner could wield too much wealth or power over others and that no person would become permanently impoverished.[1] Rather than owning land outright, farmers purchased long-term leases, at the end of which, they handed the land back over to the families or individuals who had taken possession of the land at or shortly after entering into the Land of Israel after 40 years of wandering. They then let the land lie fallow for a year and sowed it only in the following year, having faith that God would provide for their needs during those years of waiting (Lev. 15:20-22).

There were two practical outcomes of the Jubilee (“yovel” in Hebrew). One was that families who had been evicted from their land due to foreclosure now had the opportunity to begin anew. They could return to their land, work it, and reestablish their credit. Another practical outcome was that “indentured Israelites, compelled to live on the estates of their creditors, would be free to return to their own homes” and regain their freedom.[2] In essence, the Jubilee amounted to a socio-economic reboot, a time to resort to the good old days when our ancestors appreciated that, after all is said and done, God is the true owner of the land and we are merely tenants.

One translation of these verses from the Torah is famously preserved upon the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The bell itself was ordered by the Pennsylvania assembly in 1751 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, Pennsylvania’s original Constitution, which among other things assured its inhabitants of freedom of conscience. Later in its history the bell was aptly adopted by abolitionists as a symbol of the anti-slavery movement and ironically, after the Civil War, as a symbol of unity for the United States.[3]

Though the Hebrew word “d’ror” translated as “liberty” on the Liberty Bell, is better translated as “release,” the role of the Liberty Bell in history successfully captures the values inherent in the celebration of the Jubilee. Undoubtedly, the ancients would not have intended this form of release as a precedent for releasing foreign slaves, but rather only fellow Israelites. Still, the evolution of civilization has brought us to see all people as fully human and worthy of release from servitude.

The move from the “release” of debt mentioned in Torah to the freedom of slaves came very late in history, was met with much resistance, and may not even have been inevitable. Yet the progression from “release” to abolition makes moral and theological sense. All humans are created in God’s image, after all. Therefore, all humans are entitled to dignity and basic human rights. The line from the ancient Near East to 19th century America is not hard to draw.

But who would have thought that a symbol for the abolition of slavery could also be embraced by former slaveholders as a symbol of national unity? Not only were slave owners giving up what they perceived to be their rightful “property,” but they were also giving up their land. Were it not for the industrial revolution, the land would have been virtually worthless without a means to cultivate it and bring its yield to market. And, yet, as evidenced by Jefferson Davis’s visit to the bell in 1885, the ideas represented by the bell did, indeed, morph into a call for unity and reconciliation.[4]

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine under the British mandate, might have foreseen such a development. “Kook taught that the purpose of the jubilee was primarily spiritual, not economic. It came to restore the sense of unity that once prevailed in Israel…”[5] During his chief rabbinate Kook battled against Jewish opposition to Zionism as well as against forces of divisiveness within the Orthodox world. The Jubilee, for Rav Kook, represented a time when division would cease, a moment of reconciliation and brotherhood for all Jews.

If the Jubilee of the Torah could be a moment of reconciliation for Israel, than the Jubilee as represented by the words inscribed on the Liberty Bell might also serve as a reminder to all Americans after the Civil War that they were one nation. Just as biblical Israel saw their possession of the Land as Divinely ordained, so too did the founders of our nation consider the ground on which they stood to be a gift from God. For biblically knowledgeable survivors of the Civil War and their descendents, then, the Liberty Bell’s allusion to the Jubilee may have inspired them to cooperate and forgive and restore the “New Jerusalem” back to God.[6]

What does this lesson from the Torah and our own history books teach us? Just this: to the extent that the Jubilee presents a model for social justice in America, we have a lot of work to do to realize that vision. In the year 2014, we see an America divided politically, socially and economically. While we may all be free, we have yet to enjoy anything close to equality in the workplace or in the halls of decision-making. Moreover, we are as divided by ideology as ever. Equality and national unity remain elusive.

It is not realistic or, some would say, desirable in our country to enact the kind of reboot that the Torah dictates. After all, the “American dream” is as much about personal prosperity as it is about compassion. The truth is that these divergent ends will always stand in tension with one another. Americans don’t want to give up what they’ve earned, but neither will those in need be able to get by without the assistance of their neighbors.

Still, we need not accept a stalemate. The words of the Torah present us with an ideal for America. Circumstances may dictate against the full realization of that ideal in our day, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t strive to overcome social-economic disparity and religious and political divisions. As our sages taught us, “It is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it altogether” (Pirkei Avot). At the very least, we can work to diminish the consequences of our divided society by ensuring that that the poor are cared for and given opportunities for economic advancement and by holding our lawmakers accountable for working together as civilly as possible for the common good. That would be a step forward.

In our liturgy we pray for a day when all suffering will be alleviated and all the world will live in peace. On that day, on the Jubilee of Jubilees, we will surely hear the loud blast of the shofar. Though that day may be further off than we can imagine, let us, nonetheless, dedicate our lives toward making it a possibility.

© Rabbi Daniel Aronson, 2014

 

[1] Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), p. 738.

[2] Ibid., p. 172.

[3]http://www.ushistory.org/libertybell/ accessed 5/8/11

[4] An interesting footnote to history is that Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, visited the bell in 1885 in Biloxi, Mississippi, during one of its seven trips around the country from 1885 to 1915. In his remarks paying homage to the bell, Davis called for national unity: “I think the time has come when reason should be substituted for passion and when men who have fought in support of their honest convictions, shall be able and willing to do justice to each other.” See http://www.independencehall-americanmemory.com/the-liberty-bell/liberty-bell-journey-to-new-orleans/

[5] Etz Hayim, p. 738.

[6] Both the Puritans and the pioneers of the American frontier saw themselves as fulfilling the prophetic vision for a “New Jerusalem.” See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/apocalypse/explanation/puritans.html for the Puritan argument and

[6]http://www.library.vanderbilt.edu/Quaderno/Quaderno5/Q5.C7.Taylor.pdf for the pioneer argument.

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