LJ Thought for the Week: B’har
Life is full of paradoxes. One particular paradox is highlighted in this week’s Torah portion, parashat B’har (Leviticus 25:1-26:2). There we learn that we live in cycles of seven years, and that in the seventh year, there should be a Sabbath for the land (25:2-7). We also learn that following seven cycles of seven years, that is, after 49 years, the 50th year should be set apart (25:8-12):
You shall count for yourselves seven Sabbaths of years, seven times seven years; 49 years. / Then you shall make the shofar blast in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, the Day of Atonement; you shall sound the shofar throughout your land. / And you shall set apart [v’kiddashtem] the 50th year and proclaim d’ror throughout the land for all of its inhabitants. It shall be a yoveil for you: each person shall return to their holding and each person shall return to their family. / The 50th year shall be a yoveil for you: you shall not sow, neither shall you reap the after-growth or harvest the untrimmed vines. / For it shall be a yoveil. It shall be set apart [kodesh] for you. You may only eat produce directly from the field.
I haven’t translated three words in this passage: shofar; d’ror; and yoveil. Of these three, shofar is probably the most familiar: ‘horn’; usually understood as the horn of a ram. D’ror, is translated in different ways: ‘release’; ‘liberty’. It actually means that which is ’flowing’ or ‘runs freely’. In a passage in Exodus chapter 30, dealing with the spices to be used in connection with the offerings in the oheil mo’eid, Tent of Meeting, there is a reference to ‘500 weight of flowing myrrh – mor d’ror (30:22).
Yoveil is always translated as ‘Jubilee’. But what exactly does ‘Jubilee’ mean? In fact, yoveil is another word for ‘horn’: a ‘cornet’. But to get to the heart of its meaning, we need to check out its root: Yud Beit Lameid. Found, verbally, in causative constructions [Hiphil and Hophal], Yud Beit Lameid means to ‘conduct’ or ‘bear along’. Nouns related to yoveil reflect this meaning: yuval, is a ‘stream’ in Jeremiah 17:8; and y’vul, means ‘produce [of soil]’ at the beginning of next week’s parashah, B’chukkotai: ‘I will give you your rains in their season, so that the land shall yield its produce [y’vulah] and the trees of the field their fruit’ (Leviticus 26:4).
So, we can see an intimate connection between yoveil and d’ror: both words suggest dynamic movement, flow, growth. Just as streams flow, and crops that started life as seeds spring out of the soil, so the 50th year is a time of ‘release’. The shared underlying meanings of yoveil and d’ror remind us that although it appears that Life is lived in nature’s endless cycles, forever repeating themselves, week after week, season after season, Life is also about inexorable movement forwards – from birth to death.
But of course, the message of d’ror-yoveil does not just concern the paradoxical realities of Life. We learn that we are called to actively break out of the cycles of seven and proclaim d’ror and a 50th year that is a yoveil. ‘Release’ is only possible if we make it happen. Although the Sabbatical year was observed historically and continues to be observed in Israel today, there is no evidence that there has ever been a year of ‘release’ after seven cycles of seven. The reality is, then and now, that caught up as we are in the repeating rhythms of life, despite the fact that as time passes the final inevitable destination of our lives gets closer, the possibility of breaking free eludes us.
And it’s no good arguing that d’ror-yoveil is not possible because we have lost count of the seven cycles of seven. As the millennium approached, picking up on the biblical concept of yoveil in Leviticus chapter 25, ‘Jubilee 2000’ a campaign aimed at cancelling the debt of poorer counties gained momentum. As it happens, the campaign is relaunching this year (2022) as ‘Debt Justice’ (https://www.advocacyinternational.co.uk/featured-project/jubilee-2000
https://jubileedebt.org.uk/). In the USA, a similar ‘Freedom’ Jubilee was planned by radical Jews to mark the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1976 (see God-Wrestling by Arthur Waskow, chapter 11, ‘Beyond Marx and Buddha: The Jubilee’, Schocken Books, NY, 1978) and there is, currently, another Jubilee campaign in the US (https://jubileecampaign.org/ ).
We don’t need to know where we are in the seven cycles of seven to launch a year of ‘release’ campaign linked to a significant forthcoming anniversary – or deadline. As it happens, the current year (2021-22) is a Sabbatical year. Perhaps, the 2030 tipping point in the climate crisis – the year after this new cycle of seven – might focus minds. And perhaps, Liberal Judaism, could lead the way over the next seven years in framing that tipping point as an opportunity to break out of the cycle of continuing ecological and climate devastation and proclaim a year of release for the Earth and all its inhabitants.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
May 2022 – Iyyar 5782