“Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof!”
That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Given that this phrase from Leviticus Chapter 25, from our Torah reading tonight, is on the Liberty Bell, I hereby apologize for the pun.
But it does sound good and serves as a foundation for who we are as a nation.
The question is, whose liberty? And what freedoms?
In the original section, the word D’ROR is used for liberty. In this passage, U’K’RATEM DROR referred to declaring a release for the people from debts, returning lands to original owners, and allowing slaves and indentured servants to go free.
Rabbi John Rayner once pointed out that D’ROR also means a swallow. He cited a comment by the medieval bible commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra about the connection of a swallow to freedom. Ibn Ezra explained that a D’ROR is a small bird which sings when it is free, but will not eat or sing if it is held captive.
I like that Ibn Ezra connected the bird’s song to freedom. We want people to feel enough contentment in their lives to be able to express themselves freely in the community in which they live.
The Jubilee every fifty years had as its intention to make people breathe easier about their lives, to put them on a more secure and stable footing, and to allow them to sing a song of freedom, if at all possible.
I suppose we don’t have a specific freedom of song guaranteed to us in the United States, but we do have freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Sometimes those freedoms may bump up against each other in ways that our nation’s founders may not have expected.
That happened when House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan recently asked for the resignation of House Chaplain Patrick Conroy. There were accusations that he was not fulfilling his pastoral duties with the House members, but many representatives disputed that claim.
It may have boiled down to the content of a prayer offered by Father Conroy during the deliberations last fall on the tax bill. This is the paragraph that may have raised the ire of some members of the House: “May all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle....May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans."
One representative commented, after the initial firing of Chaplain Conroy, that “invoking fairness if you’re a chaplain is apparently a firing offense.”
Conroy’s prayer finds some of its roots in this week’s portion, where the Torah called for balance so that Israelite society would not evolve into a community with sharp socioeconomic divisions, with a wide gulf between “haves” and “have-nots.” This portion also reminds us that the land and our possessions may belong to us for a time, but that everything, ultimately, belongs to the One who created us and our world.
Speaker Ryan ultimately reinstated Father Conroy, who seems to offer thoughtful prayers that call on representatives to remember citizens of all means, backgrounds and walks of life in their important work.
I have delivered invocations in such settings throughout my rabbinate. My message has often been similar to Father Conroy’s. Remember whom you represent and serve; be mindful that we are all part of a greater community of humanity; and do all you can to extend support, opportunity, security, and even kindness to everyone.
This year, May 3 was the National Day of Prayer, which generally brings together leaders and adherents of the more conservative sector of the American faith community. I attended two local events last year just to watch. The prayers that were offered were all particularly Christian.
As I was flying to New York on the National day of prayer last Thursday, I decided to write my own words that expressed my sentiments for our national and worldwide human community. Here is my meditation for us, for our nation, and for the world:
Creator and Sustainer of all humanity
Every day is a day to pour out our hearts to you
To express our hopes for well-being and strength.
You are our Witness to our most unified moments and a Presence that stands with us at those times.
You are our Conscience when our words and actions cause hurt and insult and foment division and hatred.
You are a Liberator for those who seek to escape oppression.
You are a Provider when you give us the abilities to help each other through the challenges we face daily.
You are a Healer when we are mired in illness and grief.
You are a Peacemaker when conflict seems to rule the day.
You are a Teacher who shows us how to live and to love one another as ourselves.
May we be Your eyes, ears, hands and heart that can bring Your Oneness to every single soul
Not only in our nation
But throughout the world.
Be our shelter
Give us blessing
In every moment.
And I would add tonight: May we be free, Eternal God, to sing our song, to pray our prayer, to express our hopes for fairness, for equality, and for liberty for many years to come.