The Torah tells us to honor our father and mother (Exodus 20:12), to teach our children words of Torah (Deuteronomy 6:7), and not to hate our brother in our heart (Leviticus 19:17). It may come as no surprise, then, that our family obligations extend beyond these immediate family members to more distant relatives. The obligation is not as emotional as honoring or not hating. Nor is it as intimate as teaching. Rather it is a financial obligation, one that can make the difference between freedom and slavery, holding land or being landless.
The first half of this week’s combined Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, offers some details of this obligation. Leviticus 25 gives background by introducing the concept of the Jubilee year, teaching that slavery ought not be an indefinite state, and that the sale of land could not be permanent, by terminating both every fifty years.
Acknowledging that some land sales and virtually all slavery were caused by financial calamity, the Torah gives a remedy that can be invoked before the Jubilee year: redemption. Leviticus 25:25-28 says that a relative, perhaps a brother but not necessarily, can redeem property that has been sold due to financial distress. Similarly, later in the same chapter, Leviticus 25:47-55 says that a relative, again possibly an extended family member, can redeem an Israelite from slavery.
The term for the person responsible for initiating this transaction is a go’el, a redeemer. Ruth Chapter 4 offers the most in-depth look at the role and responsibility of the go’el, but in that case the scenario is complicated by the fact that the parcel of land and widow of the previous owner (Ruth) go together. Presumably, in most cases being a go’el was a tremendous financial burden, for there was probably little chance of repayment by the newly-freed slave or the owner of the redeemed property. Nonetheless, redemption of sold freedom or sold property was an obligation of a relative, a way a human being could restore things to the way God intended them.
Interestingly, other Biblical occurrences of the word go’el refer not to a person but to God. In Isaiah 44:6, the Eternal One is the Redeemer of Israel, earning this name because of the redemption from Egypt. The liturgy of the siddur (prayer book) builds upon this theme, most prominently in the section of the prayer dedicated to ge-ulah (redemption). The prayer ends praising God as “ga’al Yisrael,” the One who redeemed Israel. Though this particular form places God’s role in the past tense, the placement of the prayer following prayers for Creation and Revelation – both one-time events – implies that Redemption is ongoing. Though the verb may be in past tense, we can infer from the liturgy that God may yet redeem at any time in the present or future.
There are not many words in our tradition that can apply both to people and to God, but go’el is one of them. How profound it is that to perform an act of selfless kindness toward a relative is likened to the way God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Bringing an individual from slavery to freedom is godly.
As people created in the image of God, as Jews who are to be holy because God is holy, this is a powerful mandate. We can emulate God when we work for the freedom of others. We do God’s work when we ensure that someone in a difficult financial position is not pushed off of his land. The Torah says to begin with our family, but it offers no limitation. The possibility for redemption is infinite.