Leviticus 25:1 to 26:2
The Sabbatical Year gives the land a rest every seven years. The Jubilee Year proclaims “liberty/freedom” for both land and its people. The text gives us insight into what liberty/freedom means in the Biblical tradition.
This is the last of the four parshot given the title of the Holiness Code – A collection of laws and commandments that instruct the people on how to be “Holy.” As the Israelites were told four parshot ago: “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2)
This week’s text deals with the Sabbatical Year which is to occur every seventh year. During this year, the land is to rest or remain fallow. The crops cannot be harvested or pruned during this year. (Lev. 25:2-7) It is as if the land is alive and also deserves a rest.
Then Torah tells us to count “seven weeks of years – seven times seven years – so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years.” Then, during 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…. You shall not sow, neither shall you reap the after growth or harvest the untrimmed vines, for it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you; you may only eat the growth direct from the field.” (Lev. 25:8-11)
In Leviticus 25:10, as stated above, the Israelites are told to “Proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” The Hebrew word dror in this passage is translated to mean “release” in The Torah – A Modern Commentary, edited by Gunther Plaut. The JPS, and most other printed Torahs translate it to mean “liberty.” In a footnote, Gunther Plaut states: “This verse sums up the goal of the laws in the parashah: to ensure the fundamental freedom from economic oppression. Hebrew dror has often been translated as ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty.’ In 1751, the Pennsylvania Assembly ordered a bronze bell to be cast with an English translation of this clause inscribed on it, to commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the American colony’s constitution; the inscription on that Bell, now known as the Liberty Bell is: ‘Proclaim Liberty throughout the land unto all the thereof.’” (Plaut, The Torah – A Modern Commentary, rev. p. 751.)
Nehama Leibowitz states that this is the only use of the word dror in the entire Torah. (N. Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra/Leviticus, p.532) Even with the translation of the word to “release,” “liberty,” or “freedom” we still really don’t know what is meant.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson in an article “Proclaim Liberty, but What Kind,” looks for a meaning of liberty or freedom. He states: “Various cultures understand freedom differently; in the former Soviet Union, freedom theoretically implied relief from unemployment and homelessness. In America, those basic human needs are not considered freedoms at all, but rather privileges that too many Americans don’t get to enjoy. On the other hand, Americans theoretically believe that freedom permits uninhibited expression of personal opinions and the right to practice one’s religion unchallenged. In China, those values do not comprise freedom; instead, they are considered subversive. Within Jewish traditions, Rashi understands freedom to imply the ability to reside anywhere. He adds that freedom precludes living under the authority of others” (Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah, p. 212)
When Moses asks for the release of the Israelites…. He states to Pharaoh: “Let my people go that they may worship [the Eternal] in the wilderness.” (Ex. 7:16) Ultimately freedom for the Israelites was the ability to freely worship the Eternal and live a life without foreign rulers.
The instructions for the Jubilee Year add to the definition of Liberty and Freedom. The text implies that God is the ultimate owner of all the land. The land was divided between all the people as they entered the Promised Land. The text implies that no single person can claim land ownership over great areas of land. Every fifty years the land should revert back to the original tenants as stated by the Eternal. Also, all debts are to be forgiven. This gives all the people equal rights to God’s domain.
The same applies to individual people. No individual shall own another. All are free to worship the Eternal and obtain God’s blessings. So, during the Jubilee year, all Israelite slaves are to be physically freed, and financially freed, to return to their ancestral families and homelands.
So “freedom” or “liberty” in this week’s Torah text tells us that no individual can permanently own land or people (physically or financially). The land is God’s domain and each person is, ultimately, free to establish the life of his or her own making…. Not a life ordered by another. This is the message of the Jubilee year.
In fact, this is a very progressive definition of freedom…. All men are given an equal share. No individual is allowed to accumulate vast amounts of wealth, property, or people. Every fifty years all Israelite slaves are free, debts forgiven, and original land reverts back to the initial owners….. I doubt that it has or will ever happen, but it is a worthy goal. (Spoken by the progressive Democrat that this writer is.)