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Freedom rang from Mount Sinai

18/05/17 15:06:04


It’s two hundred years since Lord Wilberforce achieved his dream of the abolition of slavery in the British empire. It’s over three thousand years since Moshe led the Hebrew people out of slavery into freedom. Yet for all this slavery, remains a real and ugly part of twenty first century life. It has been estimated that there are over 27 million slaves in the world today. From children trapped in debt, rolling cigarettes for 14 hours a day in India, to Israel where women are victims of a global sex trade, slavery is endemic.

It is perplexing that the Torah with its revolutionary moral code and its love of liberty (“Proclaim liberty throughout the land”) countenances slavery. This week’s first parasha seems to condone or at least grudgingly accept, the reality of slavery; if a Jewish debtor could not repay a loan he could sell himself by becoming under the creditor’s control. We also know non-Israelites could become bona fide slaves.

Perhaps the answer to this conundrum lies in the fact that while the Torah doesn’t legislate against slavery its ethos or spirit is one of antislavery idealism. Our parasha stresses that the status of the debtor is not at all like that of a slave in other cultures of the time. In Mesopotamia (and later Rome, the British Empire and America) slaves were basically the property of the master to be used at his whim. Jewish law never accepted the maltreatment of slaves and from Moses to the prophets the ideal was of freedom and independence for all. This is evident in our parasha:

“If your brother being impoverished…is sold to you do not make him work as a slave. He shall remain under you as a resident --- until the Jubilee year…then he and his children are released …for they are my slaves whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves are sold…” (Lev 25:39-43)

The great Ishbitzer Rebbe (1800-1854) notes that the rationale of the Jubilee year is that we should always remember that you can never possess another human being; only G-d can lay a claim to an eternal soul. In his words: “G-d commanded concerning the freeing of slaves in the Yovel (Jubilee) year. Thus he sees that he has no ownership of their bodies and must set them free. Even at the time they are slaves G-d commanded ‘not to force him to serve with hard labour’, that is to understand that the body of a servant is not his domain.”

The Ishbitzer also points out that the other two mitzvot (laws) at the beginning of the parasha remind us that time and property can not ultimately be owned by a human being. Concerning property or land the law of Shmitta (resting the land on the seventh year) is the recognition that at the end of the day we can’t possess the land – it possesses us, “dust to dust” and all land is finally G-d’s. Similarly if you place all your trust in time, meaning relying on getting wealthy from selling time which we call interest, the Torah says: “do not take interest from him” (ribit, in Hebrew). Parashat Behar is about freedom: the freedom of slaves, and the freedom of self.

The parasha’s ringing declaration, which is now etched onto the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia as well as the replica in Jerusalem - “Proclaim liberty throughout the land” - has inspired countless generations. It was probably in the mind of Martin Luther King in his most powerful and famous sermon:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood…the day when all of G-d’s children will be able to sing with new meaning…sweet land of liberty of thee I sing…from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

Freedom rang from Mount Sinai (Behar). May its sound indeed soon be heard from the cities of Judah to the slums of India.

Shabbat Shalom - Rabbi Ralph

Tue, 14 July 2020 22 Tammuz 5780