Parashat B’har-B’chukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

“Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land.” (Leviticus 25:24)

Parashat B’har-B’chukotai contains the famous phrase:  “Proclaim liberty throughout the land,” (Lev. 25:10) It’s inscribed on the Liberty Bell, which was rung to announce the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  That’s not exactly what the Torah says, though.

The context for the quote is the opening description of the yovel, the Jubilee Year (fiftieth year), when land reverts to its original owner and Jewish slaves are set free.  Most scholars understand d’ror, the key word in the phrase, to mean release, not freedom or liberty.  This makes sense when you remember most of the Biblical Israelite community was already free. Proclaiming release, rather than freedom or liberty, applies to both slaves and slave owners.  The P’nei Yehoshua (1680-1756; Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk, one of the greatest Talmudists of his time) explains: slavery dehumanizes both the slave and the slave-owner. The Talmud supports this view, stating, “One who acquires a slave acquires a master over himself (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 20a).  The yovel releases both slave and owner from slavery’s corrosive effects.

Nowadays, we usually think of freedom as freedom “to.”  The Torah recognizes freedom is also freedom “from.”  A healthy individual is one who is free from the need to dominate another and a healthy society is one in which domination isn’t permitted.

B’chukotai is the final parasha (portion) in Leviticus.  It is customary (in the Ashkenazic, or European tradition) for the congregation to stand up and say, “Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek.”  (Be strong, be strong, and let us summon up our strength.) Jeffrey Tigay, a contemporary scholar, explains this expansion of an exhortation that King David’s general, Joab, gave to his troops before battle (2 Sam. 10:12) reflects the transformation of a request for military might into a wish for spiritual strength.

Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,

David

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