Proclaim Liberty – Shabbat Behar May 13, 2022

As something of an Anglophile, I’ve been anticipating for months the Jubilee celebrations in early June that will celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 70 years on the British throne. There will be the Trooping of the Colour (colour with a “u”) of course, as hundreds of soldiers put on a display for the monarch. There will be thousands of beacons (big torches, actually) lit across the country. A service of thanksgiving, of course, at St. Paul’s. And even the Derby at Epsom Downs is part of the celebratory weekend.

I’m sure it will be a great celebration for a woman who’s life has been dedicated to Crown and country. And a wonderful way for COVID-weary Brits to get back in touch with one another in a joyful way.

Elizabeth is the first British Monarch ever to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years on the throne – beating even Queen Victoria’s almost 64 years.

But the idea of a Jubilee as a once-in-a-lifetime event goes back to the Torah itself – even if it means something very different.

“You shall count off 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,” says the Torah this week. “Then you shall sound the shofar loud . . . and you shall hallow the fiftieth year.” (Lev. 25:8-10)

The Jewish Jubilee – the Yovel — is a community celebration, too. But the word “Yovel” itself means “release.” And our Jubilee is just that. A permanent release from indentured servitude for those who have been enslaved to others because of financial debts. “Each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family,” the Torah says.

But it isn’t just people that get a release on the Yovel. The land gets a rest – no reaping or sowing. Everyone needs to be clever enough to plan ahead for that. Because, as God reminds us here, “the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me.” (Lev. 25:24).

The Yovel – the 50th year – is a reminder to us that everything and everyone are God’s. No human being can enslave another permanently. No person can claim another’s property for a debt permanently. No land can continue to be fruitful, without a time to be fallow, permanently. No community can profit from slave labor or seized property, permanently. It’s all designed to be once in a lifetime: No child shall ever be expected to incur the debts of his father. Each of us deserves to start our own lives with a clean slate – and make of ourselves everything we can without burdens imposed long before we were born.

The Yovel is a reminder to us that those burdens still haunt us in our own time, in our own country, in so many different ways. The burden of multi-generational poverty, unemployment, and drug abuse. The burden of continued destruction of our planet. The burden of low educational expectations that are self-fulfilling for children of color and children of migrants. The burden of fear, ignorance, bigotry and senseless hatred, transmitted from generation to generation around the dinner table. The burden of one religious group imposing its beliefs on others, with sometimes deadly consequences. The burden of rampant egotism and hunger for power that has left countries like Ukraine, Syria, and so many others devastated by brutal invasion.

It seems to me that the Yovel is a lot more than an old story about how we lived under God’s rule in ancient agricultural towns. It’s a blueprint – a divine directive, really – for the way we ought to be living today: free from oppression, as the prophet Micah expressed in declaring God’s will that “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

And so it is here, in the story of the Yovel, that the Torah proclaims, in the words etched onto the Liberty Bell by our own nation’s founders: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof” (Lev. 25:10).

Our lives ought to be filled with the kindness, and generosity of mind and spirit, with which our British neighbors celebrate the Platinum Jubilee: communities coming together in celebration, no matter the race or culture or faith of neighbors; people showing solidarity with each other and honor for the leaders who have earned their trust; opportunities for public thanksgiving and for public service.

The Jewish Jubilee is no longer formally celebrated – not since the Israelite people were scattered and the Second Temple destroyed – although by some calculations, we’re in the middle of a 50-year cycle now. But there’s no need to wait to get the party started.

Now is as good a time as any to recommit ourselves to tikkun, the healing of our world, so that that the next generation will never have to inherit the burdens we have created.

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, God commands:

אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה:

You shall guard my sabbaths and venerate my sanctuary.” But we now understand that the whole world is God’s sanctuary, and every Sabbath is just a little taste of what the world could and should be. And it is up to each of us, in every generation, to fulfill that obligation.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.


©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin


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