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Dvar Torah, Parashat Behar (Leviticus)
Given on May 14, 2011
Shabbat Shalom. Imagine if you couldn’t work for a year, wouldn’t have any articles to write, patients to treat, clients to defend. That would be pretty sweet, a one year free vacation with no stress. But what about your bank account, slowly drifting from 75,000, to 50,000, to 25,000, to 10,000, all the way down. Then that would be less of a vacation, but more of a ticket to homelessness. That was what was supposed to happen every seven years in Ancient Israel, according to this week's parshah, and what happens to smaller scale in Israel today. The Sabbatical year, or S’hmita, was a time of mandatory rest that came around for one year, every seven years. During S’hmita, one couldn’t farm, and all debts that were owed would be forgiven, no matter how large. Once every 50 years, a sort of super-S’hmita came around, the Yovel year, which was the S’hmita year, plus the fact that all slaves got released, and all land went back to its original owner. But this is ridiculous! What about all the farmers? What will happen to them, a large amount of the nation’s population at the time, and their income? Why would God invent, let alone implement such a radical device? What could the reasons for S’hmita possibly be?
Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great Jewish scholar wrote in his book, The Sabbath, “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in our soul.” Heschel is speaking specifically about the weekly Shabbat here, but one can also relate these ideas to the agricultural Shabbat of the S’hmita.
One of the laws of S’hmita is all of the produce from the land that grows during the seventh year is ownerless and can be eaten by anyone and the owner of the land on which it grows can not sell that food. Thus, for six years we can as Heschel says “wring profit from the earth” while during the seventh year, we allow the hungry to eat our food and focus on equality and justice instead of greed and wealth.
As I said earlier, in the Yovel, or Jubilee year, which occurs in the 50th year, all land goes back to its original owner with no money paid back. That makes it inherently impossible to amass a large amount of land. This is important because land, not oil, coal, or gold, was the premium currency at the time. Therefore, the Jubilee year is an equalizer, which redistributes the wealth so everyone is equal.
It seems that this Par’shah is saying that we should focus more on justice and equality than on profit. But to what extent? Despite the fact that S’hmita hurts the economy, because during the 7th year, none of the agricultural workers would have jobs, are we are still expected to carry it out, even going so far as to put the country into a state of poverty? If someone came from another culture, not knowing a thing about Judaism, and read this Par'shah, they wouldn’t think particularly highly of our God. They would probably think “Well, that’s pretty foolish, their country is going to collapse every seven years, it doesn’t matter how just the society is.” Moreover, if the economy collapses every seven years, the very people S’hmita is trying to help, the poor, are also going to suffer.
In fact, some of our religion’s most important figures also had doubts about the practicality of S’hmita. Hillel expressed some concern at the part of S’hmita where debts get forgiven. He legislated what is known as Pros’bul, a procedure whereby a court would collect the money on a creditor’s behalf, while the individual was still technically following the laws of S’hmita. He did this because he thought that no one would loan any money to other people, especially in the 5th and sixth years, from fear that the loan wouldn't be paid back. If that were to happen, the economy would collapse because a working economy couldn't function anymore without credit.
In addition to equality and justice, one can also interpret this Parshah as being about humanity. After the section detailing the laws and rules of S’hmita, God includes a section on what you can and can’t do to slaves, a sort of Bill of Rights for slaves. In it God says that one can’t give the slave any unnecessary or degrading labor, or labor that is ridiculously exhausting. It seems that God might be tying the aspect of humanity to equality by doing this, raising them above the level of property. God then goes on to say that slaves shouldn’t be treated as such, but instead, one should treat them the way one would treat a hired and paid worker. This is way, way ahead of its time. In America, until the 1800s there were few laws governing how slaves were treated and even then, they were treated so poorly that many of the men on the slave ships chose to commit suicide than to undergo the monstrosities that they would face in America.
This parshah, then, is giving us guidelines for an ideal society, a society where people do more than write checks to organizations which help people in need. In S’hmita, and more specifically the Yovel year, everybody is completely equalized. God even puts everyone on the same level in the opening of the Parshah, where he says, “The Sabbath produce of the land shall be yours to eat, for you, for your slave, and for your maidservant, and for your laborer and for your resident who dwell with you.” This is on a whole other level than Tzedakah, because when you give Tzedakah, the poor person’s poverty is only temporarily alleviated. It’s like if you break your arm, and you take an Advil, the pain is only temporarily removed, when the drug wears off, it still hurts as much as ever. But the Yovel is like getting surgery on that arm. Tzedakah is just putting off the poverty for a little while, but S’hmita and Yovel address the root problem.
One may not actually want to follow letter for letter the prescriptions that are made in this portion. As I said at the beginning, S’hmita doesn’t seem very practical. But even if one doesn’t follow the explicit laws of S’hmita, we can still implement the values that S’hmita teaches. In fact, S’hmita has been very influential, even earning a cameo on the Liberty Bell, which has an inscription quoting this week’s Parshah, saying “proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Therefore, the main point of S’hmita is not to follow it literally, but to absorb the virtues that it teaches, so that we can take a step back from the march of time, as we do every Shabbos, and think about how we can achieve fairness and justice for all. Shabbat Shalom.
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