by Rabbi Michael Schwab
As a native Philadelphian, this week’s Torah portion of Behar holds a special place in my heart. Here is found the source of the inspiring words inscribed on the Liberty Bell, “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10). While in the American context this referred to the freedom of those living in the colonies who wished independence from British rule, in the Biblical context these words literally referred to freeing slaves every 50th year. In the ancient world if one was indebted to a particular creditor and could not pay him back because he had become destitute, the solution that served both parties was that the debtor would become an indentured slave to the creditor. This way the creditor received value for his lost money and the debtor was provided with food and shelter for he and his family. However, in instituting the Jubilee year during which all slaves became free again, the Torah provided a mechanism by which slavery and inequality could not be inherited and passed down from generation to generation, creating a permanent class of the “haves” and a permanent class of the “have nots”. As such, during the Jubilee year all debts were forgiven and any ancestral lands were returned back to the original family owners.
These values of equality and freedom, expressed in Jewish law that was applied to societal living, reminds us today of the importance of maintaining laws and behaviors that support the success of all community members. As many will recall, Maimonides stated that the highest form of tzedakah was not evaluated by how much charity was given, though that too is a virtue, but rather by giving a person an occupation — “to teach a man to fish”. Donating money to provide basic needs is a huge mitzvah, without doing many would suffer and even die. That is why we, at Beth El, make sure to fulfill this important commandment. However, that type of tzedakah will not change the ultimate situation of the person in need. Providing access to education, job training programs, and career opportunities is perhaps the modern day equivalent of the Jubilee year. It allows for someone to rebuild and to provide for themselves a path to a better life.
Therefore, I was so proud of our Social Action and Love Your Neighbor committees as they facilitated a presentation to our community of different organizations that are doing this wonderful type of work. Right in our backyard, the Highwood Public Library, which has become a community center as well, is providing tutoring and career training. And Waukegan to College is helping to ensure student success and is providing resources to help Waukegan students who might not have otherwise been able to enroll in universities and be successful in the college setting. If you would like to help, please be in touch with Abby Lasky at firstname.lastname@example.org or click on https://www.nssbethel.org/community/social-action/season-of-mitzvot/ In doing so we fulfill the spirit of our Torah, and the proclamation of the Liberty Bell, in bringing true freedom to all the inhabitants of our land.