Parshat Behar: Our Shofars Proclaim Liberty, Theirs’ Tyranny

Army chief chaplain Rabbi Shlomo Goren, blows the shofar after liberating the Western Wall in Jerusalem. June 1967. Attribution: Government Press Office (Israel)

“Proclaim liberty throughout the land” is one of America’s most famous, and inspirational, messages, etched on the Liberty Bell as a symbol of the aspiring Republic’s commitment to freedom and equality. And it’s a direct quote from this week’s Parsha, Behar, which discusses, among other things, the concept of freedom for all people.

That quote comes in the context of the commandment to free Hebrew servants at the end of the 50-year Jubilee cycle, when, in response to the sound of the shofar, landowners in the Land of Israel were instructed to release their indentured servants. They are also commanded to supply the freed individuals with gifts and assistance to help them re-establish their lives after they had sold themselves into servitude because they were destitute. That shofar sound symbolizes the Torah’s commitment to freedom and equality for all, emphasizing that regardless of their present circumstances, both masters and servants were ultimately responsible to the principles of freedom described by God in the Torah.

This concept was adopted by the Founding Fathers as a bedrock of American democracy – and eventually by democracies throughout the world, who, in their own way, proclaimed liberty throughout their lands. And it’s no accident that the Liberty Bell is where the Fathers decided to etch that phrase. Churches, which became the conduit through which many Jewish values were transmitted to much of the world, adopted the bell as a method of making proclamations, akin to the shofar. The Liberty Bell, like the jubilee shofar of the Torah, reminds us of those concepts of freedom and equality for all.

Unfortunately, today these bells and shofars find themselves in direct competition with those who are proclaiming the exact opposite of “liberty throughout the land.” The TikTok videos and social media messages that celebrate Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s efforts to destroy Israel are today’s anti-freedom bells and shofars that are receiving a great deal of attention. They are proclaiming death and destruction of those who are different, enslavement to hateful ideologies and promoting a world without freedom and justice.

The famous historian Niall Ferguson has said that much different from the Cold War period, today’s axis of antidemocratic states in the East has much more influence over the Western populace. They achieve this through savvy use of social media, including fake bots and misinformation. And these messages reverberate far beyond social media; these narratives influence foreign policy and find justification in actions like this week’s announcement that the International Criminal court in the Hague will seek arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top leaders on accusations of war crimes. Such a request, which also included arrest warrants for Hamas leaders, fails to see the difference between Israel—which is fighting a war and has an independent court system—and Hamas’ murderous totalitarian state and constant terrorism.

Fighting these false narratives is a struggle. We see that celebrities and ordinary people who try to offer even a weak justification of Israel’s efforts to defend itself from Hamas’ savagery are “canceled;” Jewish students who dare to hang a Star of David from their necks are denied access to campuses, or given a beating. Politicians and community leaders who proclaim their support for Israel’s just struggle find themselves threatened with boycotts, mass protests, riots, and physical harm. These are the “shofars” that not only celebrate hate against Jews, but also seek to impose this dangerous ideology of hate on the West.

These shofars of hate are being sounded loudly, and are having a very debilitating effect on Western democracies. The time has come for those of us who believe in freedom and equality to loudly sound our own shofars – to use social media just as the haters do, but this time to promote the values that the Founding Fathers of the U.S., and the Torah itself, as envisaged in that essential phrase. We must develop ways to spread our messages more effectively, to make clear to all what the differences are between our message of freedom and theirs of hate. 

Western governments need to marshal the resources they have, employing the expertise of their best and brightest in developing ways to present our side of the story. During the Cold War the United States and other Western countries succeeded in winning the information war with efforts like radio broadcasts that reached Russia and neighboring Soviet-aligned countries. We need similar efforts and commitment today, albeit adopted for the modern world. 

We need to make sure we get out our side of the story, which tells the truth about Israel’s struggle, the efforts by totalitarians to destroy democracy, and why it is important that we be vigilant in our efforts to preserve, enhance, and expand freedom. We need to warn more loudly about the dangers of extremism and hate, that the evil bells and shofars are succeeding to spread. It’s not just in this week’s parsha that we refer to this shofar of freedom; but every weekday, at all three prayer times, we ask and express hope for “a great shofar for our freedom.” Now we must truly embrace this, and “proclaim liberty throughout the land.”

About the Author
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is the President of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and exiled Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is also the recipient of the Aachen International Charlemagne Prize in 2024.