All Persons Free under God
“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25:10, inscription on the Liberty Bell)
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with Me.” (Leviticus 25:23, motto of the Jewish National Fund)
“For they are My servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as bondmen.” (Leviticus 25:42)
The liberation from Egyptian slavery, which we celebrated a few weeks ago during Passover, marked the beginning of a new regime of liberty for ancient Israel. But in the modern world, the spirit of freedom in the pages of Israel’s Bible served as an inspiration for the founders of the American Republic, and more recently for Zionism and the State of Israel.
The code of civil laws starting in Exodus Chapter 21 opens with the rule that a Hebrew slave shall go free after serving six years. This became a precedent for the arrangement of indentured servitude, which comprised maybe half of all white immigrants to colonial America before the American Revolution. Familiar as they were with the Bible, they often saw their personal working toward freedom as reliving the narrative of Jacob, who worked seven years each for Rachel and Leah. When the superintendents of the Province of Pennsylvania commissioned a bell for their assembly house in 1751, it is no accident that they chose for its inscription a biblical verse celebrating the proclamation of liberty throughout the land. Twenty-five years later, this same bell was rung at the declaration of the independence of a new nation, the United States of America.
Close study of the Jubilee Law in Leviticus Chapter 25 shows it fostered liberty on many levels. Manumission from servitude was only a first step. In order to have a chance to remain free, people needed to have a material sufficiency to earn an independent livelihood. Hence, at periodic intervals-every fifty years-the primary source of wealth, the land itself, was to be redistributed to the ancestral families to which it had presumably been apportioned at the original Israelite conquest. There is evidence in the haftarah, in Jeremiah Chapter 32, that redemption of land by its original family of ownership was an established custom during First Temple times.
When the early Zionists established the institutions of their movement that would eventually lay the basis for the State of Israel, they took this biblical precedent seriously. The Jewish National Fund was founded with a view to acquiring land as the property of the Jewish people, to be leased to individuals or collectives but to revert ultimately to the nation as a whole.
Today both the United States and Israel are lands of liberty where people are free to develop their talents and pursue happiness in harmony with their fellow-citizens. On the other hand, this freedom is impeded for many by social divisions, exacerbated by the growing inequality in wealth. This has the consequence that access to many of the goods of society-including education, civil justice, and political power-is unequally distributed as well. In the Jewish view, diminution in the dignity of human beings amounts to a diminution of the divine image in which we all were created.
As Jews, we are entitled to see ourselves as custodians of the message of the Torah to the world. The message of this week’s portion is that all property and wealth are ultimately the gift of God. We who are favored with them are custodians to use them for the benefit of all God’s creatures. Redistribution is not a dirty word, but the very essence of the law of the Jubilee. Let us carry the message that a society true to the biblical vision must provide all its members with the material means to productive labor, self-fulfillment and happiness.