By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah, Congregant
This week, we read parsha Behar, the penultimate portion of Leviticus. The primary themes of Behar are laws and commandments pertaining to freedom, equality and charity with ‘dignity’. The Lord spoke to Moses and said: “Tell the Children of Israel, you may sow your field for six years, prune your vineyard and gather its produce for your own use”(1). Further, He told Moses: “But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath (i.e. ‘Shemitah) to the Lord; all debts are to be released, slaves are to be set free, the land shall lay fallow and its produce available for everyone”(2).
In addition, God said: “And you shall count for yourselves seven Sabbatical years, seven times; forty-nine years and the fiftieth year shall be a grand Jubilee”(3). During the Jubilee year (with some minor exceptions), ancestral land would be returned to its original owners. Included in God’s statement was a commandment for a complete and total release of slaves (as opposed to the one year release, during the ‘Shemitah’ year) and a commandment to help those in financial need. Loans were to be given when necessary, but applying interest to these loans was completely prohibited: “If any of your fellow Jews become poor and unable to support themselves, lend them the money they need; do this with dignity, do not shame them, let them live with you until they no longer need your help and any money you may have lent to them need not be repaid to you”(4).
Despite the sheer antiquity of these laws, time and again they have inspired those wrestling with issues of liberty, equality and justice. The verse in this Torah parsha, “proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”(5) is inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia as an iconic symbol of freedom(6). The approach of the Torah regarding economic policy in biblical times is highly unique.
Clearly, we can make no direct inference from laws given over three thousand years ago in an age of agriculture, to the circumstances of the twenty-first century with its global economy and international corporations. However, Judaism was never dismissive of work or a productive economy. Even in ancient times, there existed ‘income inequality’. Judaism never favored the creation of a ‘leisure class’: “Whenever and however you work, you are always learning and maintaining a sense of dignity and self-esteem”(7).
Judaism is the religion of a people born into slavery, longing for redemption. One of the great assaults of slavery against an individual is that it deprives a person of the ownership of the wealth which their labor creates. At the core of the Torah is God’s defense of freedom, and “one of the most powerful manifestations of freedom is assets and/or private property as the basis of economic independence”(8). The ideal society envisioned by our prophets is one in which each person is able to sit “underneath his own fig tree”(9).
This is what the laws presented in Behar represent. It tells us that an economic system must exist within a moral framework. It may not achieve total economic equality, but it must recognize the absolute necessity to maintain human dignity.
These commandments provide us with a profoundly humane version of society. We are responsible for each other and are implicated in each other’s fate. This is the true meaning of ‘Tzedakah’.
(1) LEVITICUS (25:3)
(2) LEVITICUS (25:4)
(3) LEVITICUS (25:8-9)
(4) LEVITICUS (25:35-37)
(5) LEVITICUS (25:10)
(6) American Jewish World (NY, NY)
(7) Maimonides: “Laws of Charity”
(8) www.theGuardian.com (2017)
(9) Micha (4:4)