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Torah Portion: Behar

Book of Leviticus

Chaps. 25:1-26:2

May 27, 2016

            The famous words carved into the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, PA are taken from Leviticus 25:10-“You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants.”

            In its context, Leviticus was defining the nature of “freedom” in biblical times. On the fiftieth year (according to ancient counting) anyone who fell into servitude during the fifty-year cycle was free to depart and return to their ancestral home. The 11th century Torah scholar Rashi later explained that freedom is the ability to reside anywhere and precludes having to live under the authority of others. Rashi understood living under the authority of others to refer to living under an oppressive regime, rather than a legitimate government serving the needs of its people. Notwithstanding, the exercise of freedom remains among the most difficult concepts to understand.

The former Soviet Union understood socialism and communism as an exercise in freedom; that is, freedom from unemployment and homelessness. In North America, employment and housing are viewed as privileges, not rights. For us, freedom is the right to personal and religious expression. China views these not as rights but as subversive elements working against the greater good of the society. Canada understands freedom to include the right of all its inhabitants to universal healthcare. The United States, to this day, struggles with whether healthcare is a right for all her citizens or a privilege for those who can afford it.

Today our world has become a proverbial “Global Village.” As such, with the exception of a South Korea, the world’s population has a better appreciation for freedom as it is expressed from one nation to another. It is no longer a hidden secret. As Jews, our story began with a fight for liberation and an exodus from servitude. We know the anguish of longing for freedom and equality. Today Jews are by every definition a free people able to exercise religious freedom and cultural identity within a Jewish state-Israel. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us-4,000 years later-to continue carrying the message of Leviticus to the still downtrodden, enslaved, and persecuted: “You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants.”

            The “words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts” may be acceptable, but in this campaign they are no substitute for “praying with our feet!” Getting out there and doing something! 

Rabbi Howard Siegel

© 2017 Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Richmond, BC, Canada
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