Parashat Yitro

Negative and Positive Freedom

We are called on daily to "proclaim liberty throughout the land."

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Here we see the relationship between Exodus and Sinai. Only through the process of learning the skills, insight, and wisdom to live an empowered life can one truly be free. 

The Jubilee Year

A later biblical injunction declares the laws of the Jubilee year. Every fiftieth year all indentured servants are freed, all debts are forgiven, the land is allowed to rest, and each person returns to his or her ancestral holdings--a complete and equitable redistribution of land and a re-balancing of wealth. The Torah explains, "You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants (Leviticus 25:10)." 

The Torah specifically articulates that the jubilee year is to guarantee freedom for all its inhabitants. The limitation on wealth acquisition for some (debt forgiveness, redemption of indentured servants, and relinquishing land ownership) is necessary in order to maintain liberty for all.

True freedom, then, is not only Exodus, freedom from oppression, but Sinai, the positive liberty of access to education and economic independence. The commandments that enjoin these freedoms, then, do not hamper liberty, but enhance it. It is in this way that Sinai, the giving of laws that restrict human action, actually completes the process of freedom. And these commandments apply to us still. We are called on to daily "proclaim liberty throughout the land."

Our Obligation

Yet in both our own backyard and across the developing world both these freedoms lie in danger. In many countries even the negative liberty of human and democratic rights is unattainable. In other countries, access to economic well being, basic education, health care, and the ability to participate in government are far from secure. For such countries Exodus may have happened, but Sinai awaits.

We must use our resources and our liberties to offer financial support, political action, and direct service in pursuit of the goal of liberty for all. We are obligated by the lessons of this parashah to establish precisely those laws and protections, those restrictions, which allow true liberty to flourish and enable all the inhabitants of the world to access the resources and training necessary to achieve freedom. May we be inspired to redeem those enslaved, to proclaim liberty throughout the land, and to stand together at the foot of Mount Sinai, truly free.

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Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.