B’har: Proclaim Liberty

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar

Good afternoon!

One of the most famous verses of the whole Torah is found in this week’s portion:

. . you shall hallow 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 his holding and each of you shall return to his family.  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:10)

The fiftieth year is the Yovelor Jubilee year, in which those who were pressed into debt-servitude were released and sent home, and land sold under economic pressure was returned to the families to which it was assigned.

Commentators have noted that release (or famously, “liberty”) was proclaimed to all the dwellers in the land, but of course, not all of them were bond-servants. One interpretation, from the book Pnai Yehoshua (quoted in the collection Itturei Torah), offers a powerful interpretation: liberty is proclaimed to all because a society in which some are in bondage is a society in which none are truly free.

True freedom is not “getting to do whatever I want.” True freedom is becoming my highest and best self, in relation to God, others, and the natural world, which cannot happen if the cost of my comforts is somebody else’s physical and emotional well-being.

Here in North America, we get lots of cool things pretty cheap- electronics fromChina, clothing from India and Pakistan, food from South America. We are free, as it were, to do more fun stuff because less of our money goes to paying those who make what we enjoy- but are we free from the moral consequences of a system where across the globe, many (myself most definitely included) have too much and many more have too little? Are we free to enjoy fully the fruits of our labors, knowing that somebody else’s labor was given under brutal and demeaning conditions?

Don’t take my word for is. Just search on any internet news site using the terms “Apple China factory labor” or “Pakistan textile child workers,” or other combinations of similar terms. Yes, one can make the argument that terrible jobs are better than no jobs at all- but a better argument would be that if Westerners were willing to work with employers to create better and fairer working conditions, the jobs wouldn’t be so terrible.

Freedom is not a zero-sum game. I don’t have less if someone else has more. We cannot be free-  free to make better, more honest choices-  if we don’t know the truth about how our goods are produced. Proclaiming freedom to all the inhabitants of the globe means taking a fearless inventory of our social and economic ethics, so that a life of dignity is truly the inheritance of all humankind.

Shabbat Shalom,


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