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Judaism: Jubilee Joy

Parshat Behar is completely occupied with the laws that pertain to yovel, the jubilee year.
Published: Thursday, May 08, 2014 8:35 AM


Parshat Behar is completely occupied with the laws that pertain to yovel, the jubilee year, the fiftieth year in the cycle of counting the years in Eretz Yisroel (Israel), from the basic laws to the tangential laws.

The Parsha begins with instructions on calculating the jubilee year, “Seven cycles of sabbatical years, seven times seven, the years of the seven cycles of sabbatical years shall be for you forty nine years.” Then the Torah continues with instructions that on Yom Kippur “you shall sound the shofar throughout the land … You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants. … You shall return each man to his ancestral heritage and you shall return each man to his family.”

What a complex, seemingly convoluted and, for the Torah, an extraordinarily wordy calculation. Would it not have been equally effective to say, “After seven sabbatical cycles, the jubilee year will begin in the fiftieth year? Sound the shofar on Yom Kippur of that year.” 

Besides the emphasis on the calculation, which the Rosh Yeshiva of Mount Kisco, Rabbi Yona Furst,  explains in his compilation Divrei Yonah as a means of awakening us to the passage of time, so that we use the time from one shmitah year to the next productively rather than wonder where the time went, several other questions are raised by these verses.

First, why do we inaugurate the jubilee year with the sounding of the shofar. Further, why do we sound the shofar on Yom Kippur, ten days after the actual onset of the jubilee year on Rosh Hashanah, and finally, since it would appear that most of the laws of the yovel seem to pertain to land owners, what is the significance of proclaiming freedom for all the inhabitants of the land, landowner and non landowner alike?

Rashi writes that the year is named yovel for the sounding of the shofar, for the Torah calls the sounding of the shofar at Sinai mshoch hayovel, the pulling or sounding of the shofar that would allow Bnei Yisroel (the Israelites) to again ascend the mountain. Nevertheless, why sound the shofar at all for the yovel year?

Both Rabbi Frand and Rabbi Pam  quote the Sefer Hachinuch who explains that sounding the shofar throughout the land creates a universal rather than a personal experience. Rabbi Frand sees in this universality an element of peer pressure, for it must be hard for someone to suddenly give up what he has possessed for so long, his slave who has been indentured to him for up to forty nine years. But the shofar blast reminds him that everyone is now doing this, for Hashem has so commanded, and he must also do what is right.

On the flip side, Rabbi Pam suggests that since this is a group experience, the landed slave owner has an automatic support group, knowing that everyone else is also suffering the “loss” of these slaves as well. 

Related to the idea of giving up one’s slave is the entire concept of mesirat nefesh, self sacrifice, and our most powerful example of self sacrifice is Abraham who tied his beloved son Yitzchak (Isaac) as a sacrifice at God’s command. By blowing the ram’s horn, we are reminded of our ancestor’s willingness for literal self sacrifice. At the angel’s command, Abraham substituted the ram, entangled by his horns in the bushes, as the substitute for his son. The ram’s horn, therefore, serves as an everlasting reminder of the greatest self sacrifice.

But, as Rabbi Pam points out, while every day we recite, “And you shall love your God with all your heart and with all your soul,” to which giving one’s life for the sanctification of God’s name refers, it is sometimes even more difficult to part with one’s money and possessions, to which loving your God “with all your might/wealth” refers. This truth is apparent not only with people sometimes fighting an attacker to save one’s wallet, but especially with the prevalence of heart attacks caused by the stress of business and profit to maintain an ephemeral lifestyle.

Whereas the trial of the generation of the Holocaust was the trial of body and soul, the trial of our generation is our willingness to give of our material wealth for our God, to support yeshivas or other Jewish causes. Yovel teaches us that we are not masters of our money or of our possessions, for all belongs to our universal Master. As such, we are merely sojourners and residents, even in our own homes, for God is the rightful owner. At yovel, our bought land and slaves return to their original Owner. All our material possessions are transient, and only Torah and our good deeds are permanent.

This realization that we are not eternally and inextricably tied to our earthly possessions has the wondrous ability to free us from the stresses of this world and from the clutches of the yetzer horo (evil inclination), writes Rav Moshe Shternbach in Taam Vodaat. Thus the shofar blast proclaims freedom to all the inhabitants of the land who now internalize that whatever they have (or do not have) is a gift from God. With this mindset, one also understand boundaries,  and I neither desire that which belongs to another, nor feel entitled to take that which is not mine, whether it is pencils and paper clips from the office, or borrowing a friend’s tools without first asking permission. 

The shofar blast in the yovel year calls us back to realizing our own insignificance before Hashem just as it does during the Days of Awe, and brings us back to Teshuvah (repentance), as it releases us from the arrogance we acquire together with our possessions, writes Rabbi Moshe Egbi in his compilation, Chochmat Hamatzpun. 

Ultimately, yovel is not only about the land returning to its original place, says Rabbi Gamliel Horowitz in Tiv Hatorah. What Hashem really wants is for all of us, even those who have veered off the right path, to return to our ancestral home, to our heritage. Hashem wants us to do teshuvah as we would on Yom Kippur and free our souls to go back where they belong, just as all property goes back to its original owner during yovel. 

It is interesting to note that while the eved ivri, the Jewish slave, is freed on Rosh Hashanah, he does not go home immediately, notes Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter in Drash Dovid. Instead, he stays in the home of his former master for ten days, eating and drinking at will as if he himself were lord of the castle. He goes home only after the shofar blast of Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Hofstedter explains that a servant is indentured not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. If this former servant is now to become an eved Hashem, a true servant of God, he must free himself of the slave mentality. He must feel his freedom in his very essence so that he can choose to serve Hashem wholeheartedly. He must recognize that not only is he now no longer serving his master, but neither is he now dependent on a human being for his sustenance, for he can eat and drink as he pleases, and he will now only be dependent on the Holy One, Blessed be He, Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and be responsible for his actions only to Him.

This process of emotional liberation, writes Rabbi Miller, is completed after ten days, on Yom Kippur.

Now we can further understand why the shofar is sounded for all the inhabitants, for the message is not just to the servant but also to the master who equally owes his service to the Master of all. 

Yovel is from the verb meaning to lead. That shofar blast, writes Rabbi Rivlin, quoting Rav Hirsch, is to lead us all back, just as the ram leads the flock back at the end of the day’s feeding.

As alluded to earlier, we are all slaves to a certain extent of modern technology and materialism. Since we do not practice yovel today, how can we incorporate these ideals into our daily lives?

Rabbi Brazile in Bishvili Nivra Haolam draws on the common practice of kissing the mezuzah to connect us to this concept. While the hand makes a physical connection with the mezuzah, the connection is also metaphysical. We know that each handprint is unique with individual lifelines. There are also lines that the sofer, scribe, uses when writing the passages on the parchment of the mezuzah. When we make that physical connection, we are also making the spiritual connection that is renewing our contract with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, as if we are signing those passages from the Torah in the mezuzah case.

I kiss the mezuzah with my extended hand and dedicate my service to Him with all the uniqueness of my being toward my unique mission. 

Indeed, the letters for the word “lines” on both the palm and the mezuzah are an acronym for four of our senses: SeReT = Shemiya, sound; Reiyah and Rayach, sight and smell; Taam, taste. When we extend our hand, we incorporate our final sense, touch. Similarly, by covering my eyes with my hand when I say the prayer of Kriyat Shema, I am also reminding myself of my uniqueness and dedicating myself to God’s service.

So between kissing the mezuzah and saying the Shema I can incorporate the messages of yovel and the shofar blasts associated with it into my unique psyche. I bear witness that no man is master over another, but God is Master over us all. I wish to return to the roots of my ancestors who served only Him, and I rely only on Him.

This relationship of trust and love and dedication is the source of true jubilation, for I realize that whatever exists in the material, transient world that surrounds me, my soul is connected to eternity.

Listen to this class at https://www.dropbox.com/s/fxwwvz1bcn0sucd/5774-34-behar-jubilee-jubilation.wmv