Parashat B’har – B’chukotai 5781


5 May 2021 – 23 Iyyar 5781

Rabbi Richard Jacobi

 
U-k’ratem dror ba-aretz l’chol yoshveiha – “You shall proclaim release (some say ‘freedom’) throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” These words from Leviticus 25:10 are inscribed on the Liberty Bell of the USA and they should ring out to us this week in the UK. Back in the early 1980s, I first heard these words as part of a lesser-known song by Jeff Klepper and Dan Freelander (of Shalom Rav fame), to which I’ll return later.

The ‘release’ of the jubilee year, the fiftieth year that concludes a cycle of seven lots of seven years (glance ahead to Shavuot beginning on Sunday week after forty-nine days of Omer for a comparison), is like re-booting your computer to its factory settings. It sets up a clean start after a period of time has elapsed, restoring those who had hit upon hard times to their share in the land of Israel. It aimed to ensure that everyone retained their stake in the land. There have been and will, I’m sure, continue to be debates about whether the law of jubilee was ever implemented or could ever be implemented.

However, as a visionary statement of inclusion into land ownership and avoiding the tendency towards monopoly control that so often occurs in unregulated economies, this is remarkable. Sadly, two developments within the United Kingdom strike me as being antithetical to the thinking of the Leviticus Holiness Code (a scholarly term for chapters 17 – 26).

At 11:45pm on 6th May 2021, a six-week public consultation closes on the “New Plan for Immigration” published by the Home Office. Five days later, the bill relating to this document will be included in the Queen’s Speech. Plenty of time to absorb the feedback from the consultation then! The current plans will:

  • Prevent any refugee who arrives outside of official schemes from claiming asylum (which goes against the Refugee Convention and international law);
  • Threaten the safest ways of separated refugee families being able to reunite;
  • Go against the spirit of the Kindertransport by not offering unaccompanied children any legal routes to enter this country;
  • Expand the use of “reception centres” (or “internment camps”), rather than allowing refugees and asylum seekers to live in the community;
  • Guarantee insecurity by the threat of instant removal throughout the process of seeking asylum.

If the planned system has been in place eighty years ago, then I’d never have been born! My sister and I are among those rabbis who have responded to the consultation (it takes nearly two hours!) and we know that there is a challenge ahead to achieve whatever is possible to restore some Levitical / Progressive Jewish morality to these proposals.

Secondly, yet again in recent days, an opportunity to properly address the cladding scandal blighting leaseholders in flats that do, or even might, have unsafe materials used when building them. Parshat B’har could not envisage the complexities of twenty-first century property development, but it sought a democratic spreading of land ownership across the community.

I have no doubt that the Judaism I was taught and try to teach and practise, and the Judaism we debated in so many interesting ways at last weekend’s Biennial, would seek the state’s intervention to make safe what is dangerous, and then bring to account those who caused the dangerous situation to arise.

Amos 5:15 states “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice at the gate.” This prophetic injunction became the title and opening lines of that song I mentioned earlier. Amos’ timeless words remind us that we have a responsibility to develop and sustain a moral compass that enables us to discern between good and evil. Progressive Judaism is as good a manual for this as any I’ve come across. As it’s my ancestors’ manual, I’ll take it forward as best I can.

My Judaism’s moral compass reminds me so many times in the Torah, as well as my family’s history, to love the stranger (= refugee) that I’ll do this through fighting proposals that I see as anti-refugee. My Judaism’s moral compass – in this parashah – reminds me to spread ownership of land out widely, so that wealth does not accrue to a few. The cladding scandal is but one example of what happens when we allow this.

The gates of an ancient city were the location of the courts. Nowadays, we have a much more formal system, which includes judicial review, but this too is under threat. The full sentence of Amos warrants listening to and upholding. “Sin’u ra, ve-ehevu tov, v’hatzigu vasha-ar mishpat – Hate evil and love good, and establish justice at the gate.”

Listen to the full song here if you wish. It might not be their most famous collaboration, but Cantor Jeff Klepper and Rabbi Daniel Freelander can still remind us of what’s important as we end one book of Torah and prepare for the fourth book, and for Shavuot.

PS For more information about the campaign for fairer treatment or refugees, please visit:

https://www.jcore.org.uk/single-post/statement-on-the-new-plan-for-immigration

Link to song:

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