Thursday, May 12, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi

PARASHAT BEHAR:  2011/5771


And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom in the land [ba-aretz] for all its inhabitants [le-khol yosheveha]. It shall be a Jubilee for you [lakhem]. (Lev. 25:10).

At first glance, the meaning of the text is obvious.  It simply states: “You shall proclaim freedom in the land for all its inhabitants [le-khol yosheveha].  But most of the inhabitants of the land were not enslaved. Yet the verse states:  “You will proclaim freedom in the land for all its inhabitants.”  In his rabbinic classic, the Penei Yehoshu’a, the great Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk (1680-1756) explained this linguistic and logical discrepancy: “The Torah did not say ‘you shall proclaim freedom in the land for all its slaves [le-khol avadeha].  Instead, it said for all its inhabitants [le-khol yosheveha].  This is because a country in which even a small minority of the population does not enjoy freedom is one in which all its inhabitants are enslaved.  One [feels] free only when there is no deprivation whatsoever of freedom in one’s country.  Slavery is a plague that strikes both the slave and his master.  Accordingly, the statement: ‘You shall proclaim freedom in the land for all its inhabitants [le-khol yosheveha],’ is appropriate.  [Only] when its slaves are freed, are all the inhabitants of the country [really] free.” 

Rabbi Falk has drawn attention to an important nuance of our text.  Everybody in a given society is ultimately adversely affected by the indignity suffered by some of its inhabitants.  The cancer of disaffection necessarily infects a society that rests on fundamental inequalities. It is unnoticed and undiagnosed at first, but is eventually crippling and even lethal.  It affects the moral makeup of the privileged.elite Over time many of them become insensitive to and eventually exploit the disadvantaged and disempowered sectors of their societies.  Gradually the patience of the disadvantaged wears thin.   When they have reached the limits of their tolerance, they arel motivated by their leaders to rebel against the status quo.

I witnessed this process in my native South Africa during the era of Apartheid.  The non-white majority bore the indignity and dehumanization of their subservient status until their patience and tolerance were exhausted.  When peaceful protests were violently suppressed, new leaders arose who urged them to fight the inequalities.  Happily, the then leader of the regime saw the coming conflagration and the likelihood that the entire population would suffer the agony of civil strife.  Wisely, he dismantled the ugly system and reconciled with the great Nelson Mandela. He had finally understood the biblical principle that freedom cannot be bifurcated, that none can be truly free when the freedom of others is compromised.

We are currently witnessing the so-called Arab Spring.  It began in Tunisia.  The disadvantaged, exploited and largely impoverished majority took to the streets.  Initially the privileged and despotic dictatorial political establishment attempted to crush the protests, but eventually realized that the freedom of the many could not be permanently denied, and surrendered their authority. 

The disadvantaged majority of Egyptians followed the Tunisian example.  The process was similar and Mubarak, too, was compelled to resign.  In Libya, the leadership has refused to concede that its policies of repression have been misguided and intolerable, and has begun to wage a bloody war on its own citizens.  Rabbi Falk was right in stating that freedom can’t be bifurcated. When some citizens do not enjoy the same rights as others, all eventually become the victims of the consequences of the inequalities.

 It still remains to be seen how the bloody repression in Syria will play itself out.  However, recent events recall a chilling biblical prophecy:  “Therefore, thus says the Lord:  You did not listen to my [injunction] to proclaim freedom each to his brother,  neighbor to neighbor.  Therefore, I proclaim freedom unto you, says the Lord--freedom [to fall victim to] the sword and pestilence and hunger… And I have delivered them unto the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek to take their lives.” (Jeremiah 34:17-20).

The message of the Torah and of the prophet is abundantly clear.  There is no freedom by halves. Unless all are free, none eventually will be completely free of the awful consequences of their discriminatory policies.

The sages examine a further implication of our text.  The Torah declares: “It will be a Jubilee for [all of] you [lakhem].”  This implies that the laws of the fiftieth year apply to all Jews at all times and in all places.  Accordingly, the Talmud asks:  “Does this mean even beyond the borders of the land [of Israel]?  But the same text also says:  “You shall proclaim freedom in the land [ba-aretz].”  This tells you that when freedom obtains in the land [of Israel] it obtains beyond its borders.  But when freedom does not obtain in the land [of Israel] it does not obtain beyond its borders. (B.T. Rosh Hashanah 9b).  

Commenting on this Talmudic dictum, Rabbi Benzion Zaks writes that the principle of non-bifurcation of freedom applies not only to the relationship of masters to slaves, but also to the relationship of all the other nations of the world to Israel.  As long as the inhabitants of Israel suffer a diminution of their experience of freedom, all other nations will experience diminished freedom. To the extent that the inhabitants of Israel do not experience freedom from fear, the compromised sense of freedom in Israel undermines the unconditional experience of freedom of other nations. 

 At first, when Israeli passenger planes and airliners carrying passengers to Israel were hijacked, there was scant international reaction. This new phenomenon was seen to be purely and exclusively an Israeli problem. But the disquiet of passengers flying to Israel soon became an international problem, and air travelers have not felt completely secure ever since. The first suicide bombings of civilian targets were in Israel.  There was a time when Israelis were afraid to eat in restaurants and to travel on public buses. Tragically, the terrorists learned rapidly, and suicidal killers destroyed the Twin Towers, murdering 3,000 innocents and striking fear in the hearts of millions. It began as an assault on the freedom of Israelis. Now suicide bombers terrorize country after country, and nobody anywhere enjoys complete freedom from fear.

If only the implications of our text had been more universally recognized, if only the nations of the world had taken the threat to the security of Israeli citizens more seriously, perhaps the  fundamental freedom to be of so many thousands of people in so many other places would not have been compromised. Freedom cannot be bifurcated.  When the freedom from fear of the inhabitants of Israel is compromised, everybody’s freedom to congregate, worship, and work in peace is also compromised.            

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