When the Founding Fathers proclaimed “liberty throughout all the land” and imprinted that pledge on the Liberty Bell, they were inspired directly by Parashat Behar. The Israelites are commanded to declare every seventh year a shmita, a sabbatical of complete rest for the land.
More dramatically, every 50th year was to be a yovel, a jubilee year, when the land not only rested but was returned to its ancestral holders, along with indentured servants, who were likewise restored to their families in a great display of “liberty and justice for all.” Why?
“The land is Mine,” said God. “For you are but sojourners and residents with Me” (Lev. 25:27).
This profound reminder that we are but transient visitors on God’s created Earth seems self-evident, yet how often we forget this stunning truth. We strive for permanence in a world of fleeting shadows, knowing deep within that the illusion of “owning” anything — objects, houses, land, even people we love whom we claim as “ours” — is just that, an illusion.
But who could blame us? We yearn to make a lasting impression, to claim “this is mine. I am here.” In the process, we often hold too tightly, not wanting to lose our grip on those things we hold most dear, even potentially hurting them along the way. To surrender to the ephemerality of existence may seem terrifying, but such an approach to life can be calming and inspiring, too.
King Solomon, the traditional author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, describes that exact philosophical evolution. He had amassed uncountable possessions, gobbling up every kind of pleasure and luxury item upon which he set his eyes (and his unlimited resources) in his search for the elusive meaning of life.
But “then I looked at all the things that I had done and … it was clear that it was all fleeting and chasing after wind — and there is no real profit under the sun” (Kohelet Rabbah 2:11).
He begins in desperation but arrives ultimately at a place of beautiful acceptance. The best way to live, he realizes, is to “eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a glad heart, [trusting that] God has favored your actions” (Kohelet Rabbah 9:7).
The days, and we, all pass away, but true peace is found with a beloved companion, and in the immeasurable blessings of home and hearth, should we be so fortunate.
Allowing the land to rest and the servants to return home is a supreme act of emunah (faith). It requires letting go and trusting in God. But to work in partnership with the Creator, to heal the world and the land on which we depend, necessitates that faith.
To relinquish the urge to amass as many material goods as we can (and often can’t) afford, and even to be defined by them, is also an act of faith. It asks us to employ the trait of histapkut (simplicity), so that we can direct our energies to what is most beautiful in life — giving, not getting.
Our “Great American Experiment” places freedom and liberty at its very center. But even the Liberty Bell has a crack. That inadvertent but symbolic break reminds us that our freedoms, as Americans and as Jews, are not invulnerable. They are fragile, and each of us must be vigilant in protecting and preserving them.
True Freedom lies not in how much we buy or “own,” but in what we surrender to a greater good as we gently make our way across God’s Earth. That is the lesson of the shmita and the jubilee.
The magic of histapkut and letting go is captured in a touching story I learned from Alan Morinis, director of the Mussar Institute.
As he told it: An American visitor was passing through the Polish town of Radin and stopped to visit the Chofetz Chaim. Entering the great sage’s modest dwelling, he was struck by how sparsely it was furnished. “Where is your furniture?” the man asked. “Where is yours?” replied the Chofetz Chaim. “Oh, but I am only passing through,” answered the man. “I, too, am only passing through,” said the Chofetz Chaim.
May we all know the joy of true and lasting freedom, and may we tread lightly along our journey. Shabbat Shalom.