Proclaim Respect Throughout the Land - On the Jubilee and Public Prayer
- D'var Torah - May 9, 2014
A replica of the Liberty Bell in Jerusalem's Liberty Bell Park
(Gan Pa'amon HaDror) which was founded in 1976.
throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof."Those words from Leviticus
Chapter 25 Verses 10, inscribed on the Liberty Bell, have served for over 200
years as a beacon leading us to claim our individual rights as Americans and to
throw off the yoke of tyranny of a ruler from a distant shore or a far away
What we don't often
consider is that the actual meaning of the word translated as liberty, D'ROR, is "release." It is used in that verse which
established that the jubilee year would occur every 50 years on the ancient
Israelite calendar. Jubilee comes from
the Hebrew word YOVEIL, which actually means a blast of the shofar. The shofar sounded the call to begin a
special time when slaves could go free, debts would be forgiven, and land would
go back to its previous owners.
The Eitz Chayim Torah commentary
notes that the jubilee year was intended to prevent society from turning into a
two-tiered system of "haves" and "have-nots." It explained:
"Behind this plan are two religious assumptions. Because all the earth and all of its inhabitants belong to
God, human beings cannot possess either the land or people in perpetuity. And no human being should be condemned
to permanent servitude."
This practice was not as much economic as it was spiritual. It hoped to restore a sense of
unity among all people under God in a community and to bolster self-respect for
those overcome with poverty and with a sense of failure.
Leviticus Chapter 25, the basis for godly behavior is clearly defined: "Do not wrong or persecute
one another, but fear your God: I the Eternal am your God." The rabbis applied this verse to all
types of commerce and transactions.
They further asserted that this passage teaches us that we shouldn't
wrong other people with harmful words, no matter what the context.
live our lives as citizens of our city, state and nation, we often think about
rights - our freedom to do what we believe we should be able to do. We also think about our
responsibilities to follow laws and rules that assure that we will treat each
other with decency, respect and fairness. The belief that everything and everyone belongs to God
can take our views about law and even politics to a higher level. We can work for the greater good by
focusing on how common ground and interests unite us, and how we can realize
the hope that all people will be able to reach a level of subsistence and
The Torah, in its own way, creates a path to "life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness" for all of us - "we, the people." Cognitive linguist George
Lakoff cited these values as central to the vision that created our country
when he said, "American
democracy is based on empathy — citizens caring about other citizens and
working through their government to provide public resources for
all." Israelite society
accepted as a mitzvah the need to provide everyone a feeling that they would
find help, connection and support in their communities in times of both prosperity
think, with such a broad vision expressed in Leviticus Chapter 25, that calling
upon God would naturally lead to unity.
We know, all too
well, how the presence of many faiths in our country has been a source of both
strength and conflict. The
strength is the great potential to learn about each other’s traditions and to
be enriched by that knowledge. The
conflict comes when one religious viewpoint seems to be favored over another.
That was the feeling
of the plaintiffs in Greece NY vs. Galloway, the case decided Monday this week
by the Supreme Court in favor of allowing an overwhelming majority of the
prayers at town council meetings to be Christian in their wording and
expression. In a statement
following the decision, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement's
Religious Action Center commented: "Writing for the majority, Justice
Anthony Kennedy noted that requiring invocations to be nonsectarian would call
on the legislatures sponsoring these prayers and the courts to intervene and ‘act
as supervisors and censors of religious speech.’ Yet, Justice Kennedy did
suggest there were limits to such prayers, among them: denigrating
non-believers or religious minorities, threatening damnation, or preaching
conversion—leaving courts in exactly the same role as line-drawers.”
this decision as one that ignores the importance of one person being considerate
of another in a public setting.
At the New Mexico State University Interfaith Council, we apply these standards
to our opening and closing prayers: any particularistic language is prefaced
with the pronoun "I" rather than "we.” We always acknowledge the
presence of believers in a variety of traditions. The sentiments in the body of almost all of the prayers we offer are expressive of
common and universal hopes and feelings.
That was not the case in Greece,
New York. It is not the case in many halls of government, where clergy and
others are free to offer sectarian prayers filled with themes that narrowly
apply only to one religion.
Invocations or benedictions that assume that all people present are
members of one faith community automatically disparage those who are not part
of that circle of belief.
From my own
experiences with this very issue, I have chosen to use, in my public prayer,
the most universal language possible from the Jewish tradition. Fortunately, we have many choices for
names of God and for sentiments to express that easily apply to everyone.
Tomorrow, I will be
delivering the invocation at the NMSU afternoon graduation after leading our
Shabbat morning service here.
I chose to take part because I felt that there is a special message that
our heritage can add to such a gathering.
Based loosely on a blessing from the Talmud, here is the prayer I will
Spirit of the
universe, Eternal Source of wisdom, we thank You for the knowledge you have
implanted within us, and which always seeks to express itself in daily life.
As we celebrate this time of
which is both an ending
and a beginning for faculty and students, parents and children, we ask for the
perseverance to achieve our highest goals.
May our ideals
persist in our work towards a world filled with greater justice, peace and
May our hearts be
filled with understanding.
May our mouths give
expression to insights that will enable us to live by the values we prize.
May our eyes shine
with the light of continued learning.
May our ears remain
sensitive to the cries of those in need.
May our hands work
for peace and harmony among all people.
May our feet follow
pathways that will lead us to a future filled with hope.
May we always be
favored with nourishment for body, mind and soul that will sustain us all and
help us grow as individuals and as members of the family of humanity.
And my prayer for us as we
read this section from the Torah is this: that we remember and understand that
our individual rights carry with them sacred public responsibilities to preserve
our land, to work for the well-being of our fellow citizens, to support people
in need so that they will no longer be in need, and to act as God's partners in
maintaining and renewing daily the works of creation.