Seventy Faces of Torah The Bells That Still Can Ring: On Rest and Action
I wonder if there is a song lyric quoted more often in High Holiday sermons than the chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” It’s not hard to see the homiletical appeal of Cohen’s poignant words to congregations of imperfect human beings. Nor is it a stretch to understand why these words have a special resonance around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we come face to face with our sins and our faults—both the discrete mistakes we make, and the patterns of behavior that point towards the broken, cracked places within us.
For me as a New Jersey girl, who grew up just over the river from Philadelphia and its historic sites (a frequent destination for school field trips), Cohen’s imagery of bells with cracks also reflexively calls to mind the Liberty Bell. It originally graced the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House (later called Independence Hall), a building that housed the Second Continental Congress and the signing of the Declaration of Independence (among other events). It eventually came to be called the Liberty Bell because abolitionists in the 1830s adopted it as a symbol of liberty (for reasons we will understand in a moment). After it could no longer function—the history of its cracks is a fascinating story unto itself—the Bell was displayed on the ground floor of Independence Hall, and then eventually at its own Liberty Bell Center, built as part of the US Bicentennial celebration in 1976.
The Liberty Bell, as it turns out, has more than a loose associative connection to the High Holidays by way of Cohen’s song. On the bell are the famous words from a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Behar: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). It’s a resounding sentiment, one that the Torah says should be announced not by the ringing of a bell but the sounding of a shofar—on Yom Kippur.
The identification here of “the tenth day of the [seventh] month—the Day of Atonement” (yom ha-kippurim) seems surprising. The entire context of Parshat Behar (a short Torah portion that is barely one chapter long) is that of the yovel, the jubilee –year 50 after seven cycles of seven years each. In each seventh year, the shemitah year, the land gets a complete rest from agriculture—a shabbat shabbaton (a “Sabbath of sabbaths”); every fiftieth year, there is an additional year of rest for the land, and according to biblical law, all slaves are to be freed and all debts forgiven.
It is a year of complete freedom for the land and humanity alike, a do-over year, a time to begin all over again. In this context of new beginnings, the choice of Yom Kippur as the day on which to proclaim the Jubilee year does make some spiritual sense. It is, after all, the peak of the season of clean slates and radical renewal. But why not blow the shofar for the Jubilee nine days earlier on Rosh Hashanah, a day when the shofar is already blown, and the very beginning of that new year?
The Kli Yakar, a 16th– and 17th-century commentator, makes a second connection between the Jubilee and Yom Kippur. He notes that Yom Kippur is the day, according to Jewish tradition, on which the Torah was given—and understands the Torah itself as both a symbol and enactment of freedom. We have left slavery in Egypt; now, we do not serve a cruel despot who demands demeaning physical labor, but instead worship in love the Creator of the Universe through acts of meaning and significance. Indeed, Parshat Behar itself makes a link back specifically to the occasion of the Torah’s revelation with its unusual opening words: “God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying…”
Yet a third, linguistic connection is made when the language of shabbat shabbaton (which in Parshat Behar refers to shemitah) is used earlier in Leviticus (16:31) as a description of Yom Kippur itself–an indirect but obvious textual identification of the shemitah cycle (including the Jubilee) with Yom Kippur, a time of intensive rest and reflection. For an ancient nation of former slaves and their children, on the way to their promised homeland, the particular vision of freedom in Parshat Behar was one that spoke to the limits of human servitude and to the need to treat the land with sanctity, embodying a way to step back and start over.
But for US abolitionists in the 19th century, working to end slavery in their time, the particular language of “proclaim liberty throughout the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof”—and the bell on which these words were inscribed—represented a rousing and comprehensive call to working actively for freedom. And for us, a contemporary nation still too close to the enslavement of people of African descent, to Jim Crow laws and widespread legal discrimination only a few decades ago, to toxic racism still too long and too much with us, our vision of freedom might be proclaimed in a moment of rest, but can only be realized in moments of action.
When three Civil Rights movement workers—two white (and Jewish), one black—disappeared in 1964, the search for their bodies turned up the bodies of black men in the rivers of Mississippi for which the authorities had not bothered to search. Ella Baker, an African-American civil rights activist and hero, famously said in the wake of these events—in words immortalized in “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock—“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s sons–we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”
The Liberty Bell has long remained at rest—it is no longer, in a literal sense, a “bell that can still ring”. But its inscription could not be more resonant or more timely. Those who are enslaved must go free. All lives must matter. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.