Proclaim D’ror: Commentary on Parashiyyot Behar-Bechukkotai 5783

By Rabbi Dr. Laurence Edwards, Professor Emeritus of Bible, Jewish Thought, and Jewish History; Hebrew Seminary


I was eight years old when Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments was made. Though my father was not interested in seeing the film (“I read the book,” he said), I loved it. I was moved by Elmer Bernstein’s score, and by the narrative voice (the voice of God, I guess), especially when it intoned, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

I thought he was quoting from the Liberty Bell. I was therefore interested to learn that the Liberty Bell was actually quoting the Torah—Leviticus 25:10, in this week’s double-parashah of BeharBechukkotai. My father—who knew American history and had read “The Book”—knew this. I can’t quite remember now, but it may be that my father’s commentary on this verse was the beginning of my interest in perhaps reading The Book for myself.

Rabbi Joel Oseran describes how this verse was chosen for the bell:


Interestingly, the American Founding Fathers were led to this particular Leviticus text because the occasion they were celebrating in 1751, the year the Pennsylvania Assembly ordered the Liberty Bell to be constructed, was the 50th anniversary of Governor William Penn’s famous “Charter of Privileges,” written in 1701 and destined to become the source for Pennsylvania’s original constitution. The key for the Pennsylvania lawmakers was the last words of Leviticus 25:9, “…and you shall hallow the fiftieth year.” (World Union for Progressive Judaism, Torah From Around the World, #15.)


When I have previously taught about this portion, I have quoted statistics on wealth distribution in and beyond the United States. Here are some statistics today from Wikipedia’s article on “Distribution of wealth:”


At the end of the 20th century, wealth was concentrated among the G8 and Western industrialized nations, along with several Asian and OPEC nations. In the 21st century, wealth is still concentrated among the G8 with United States of America leading with 30.2%, along with other developed countries, several Asia-pacific countries and OPEC countries…

A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at United Nations University reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total. The bottom half of the world adult population owned 1% of global wealth… A 2006 study found that the richest 2% own[ed] more than half of global household assets…

In 2007, the richest 1% of the American population owned 34.6% of the country’s total wealth… and the next 19% owned 50.5%. The top 20% of Americans owned 85% of the country’s wealth and the bottom 80% of the population owned 15%.


Those numbers largely reflect a time before the 2008 meltdown—and well before the pandemic. I don’t think that one has to be either a biblical prophet or an economist to know that there will be more such episodes of economic upheaval.

The final chapters of Leviticus present us this week with the principle that the land must rest. It is clearly connected to the Torah’s underlying sense that we must live as responsible stewards of the environment—of which we are not the owners, merely the tenant caretakers. The present moment, however, brings to mind the quails of which we will soon read in the Book of Numbers. The people complain about the lack of meat, and God, disgusted, says, “You want meat? I’ll give you meat!”—offering enough quails to descend on the camp for the people to gorge on themselves until the flesh is coming out of the Israelites’ nostrils (cf. Numbers 11:16–20).

Here again, I don’t think one has to be a biblical prophet or a geologist to imagine God saying today, “You want oil? I’ll give you oil—so much oil that it will spill all over everything! Do you want coal? It will cost many lives.”

The “liberty” that is to be proclaimed is d’ror (דְּרוֹר), better translated as “release”—release of indentured servants, coupled with the yovel (יוֹבֵל, the “Jubilee”), proclaimed by the sound of the ram’s horn, when “each of you shall return to his holding” (Leviticus 25:13). Dr. Baruch A. Levine (1930–2021), in the Jewish Publication Society’s Torah Commentary volume on Leviticus, argued that this verse “refers primarily to families who were evicted from their homes and farms due to foreclosure and who had been unable to repay their loans” (p. 172).

BeharBechukkotai presents an impossibly utopian vision: The land must have rest, and wealth must be periodically redistributed to prevent its concentration in too few hands. But impossibility is no excuse for not trying. We have been living beyond our means for quite some time. The earth has become lopsided, and it groans under the weight of us. We’ll either figure out how to rebalance, or it will be done for us, and to us.




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