Parshat Behar opens with the laws of the Sabbatical year — Shmittah — as discussed by G-d with Moses on Sinai. Rashi’s commentary begins with his immortal and probably best-known line, “Mah inyan shmittah etzel Har Sinai,” how is the Shmitttah year relevant to Sinai? After all, the Israelites were in the desert at the time, wandering for four decades. Not one of them was gainfully employed, and certainly none were engaged in agricultural activity of any kind.
But Rashi is being a bit hasty in his credulousness. When viewed within the total context of the Parsha, the laws of Shemitta are absolutely in context here.
After all what is Behar about? It is about striking a healthy balance in life whereby exploitation – of land, of others, even of ourselves – is acceptable, but only up to a point.
The Torah acknowledges that a measure of competitiveness, appetite, greed and exploitation is necessary both for our physical survival and for society to progress. Yet, there must be an imposed limit to such activity. There is a red line which, when crossed, turns healthy exploitation into rapaciousness, and the desire to succeed into unfettered greed.
To begin with, we are told that we must work the land for six years. But then we must allow both the land and ourselves to rest on the seventh. Both natural and human resources can only be exploited so much before we encounter either diminishing returns or unbridled ruthlessness.
From here we move on to the Jubilee year when all property returns to its original owners. The Torah understands that the need to sell property can occur. Nevertheless the property is ultimately G-d’s and hence its sale can be for a limited time only.
Such a law may seem utopian, even more so than the laws of the Sabbatical, yet its purpose is clearly to put the brakes on acquisition for the sake of acquisition. Life is not a game of Monopoly whereby the one who dies with the most buildings wins. Yes, there is opportunity for the ambitious to accumulate wealth, just as there is an opportunity for those who are in a pinch to cash out their property — but within limits. What’s more, the original owner can at any time re-purchase his land if and when he is financially able to redeem it from the purchaser.
Even in a totally urban setting, a walled city, the sale of a home can be reversed within a year of the sale should its original owner come up with the necessary cash – this despite the fact that such a residence is not part of one’s perpetual landholding. The Torah understands that the sale of a home is often necessitated by financial hardship.Such a home may have been sold by its cash-strapped owner at great disadvantage. So, yes, the buyer can be opportunistic in his purchase or foreclosure, but the seller retains a one-year option to take back his domicile.
The Torah’s injunction against usury and the taking of interest is a critical part of Parshat Behar. A reasonable profit from the sale of one’s produce or ones productivity is absolutely sanctioned. But profit from lending, in which there is no sweat equity or creativity on the lender’s part, is viewed as unjustifiable exploitation, and this is not allowed. It is simply not an honest way to make a living.
Situations arise in which a fellow Jew hits such an economic wall that he must indenture himself in order to repay his debt. The Torah enables such servitude. However the master may not be ruthless in his exploitation of the Hebrew slave who can be redeemed at any time, and is automatically manumitted during the Jubilee year.
“Because to me are the Children of Israel servants, they are My servants whom I have brought forth from Egypt, I am the Lord your G-d.” (Leviticus 25:55)
Yes, Shemitta is totally germane to Sinai insofar as it sets the tone for a corpus of laws that acknowledge our desire for success, our natural competitiveness, and our right to exploit human and natural resources — up to a point. With the proper balance, the greatest number of people can achieve a modicum of success and no one falls entirely through the cracks.
This is extremely progressive thinking. It is also in diametric opposition to contemporary reality in which greed is unbridled, interest gains are the barometer of success, 24×7 is the order of the day, and people are no longer employees to be nurtured, cared for and exploited wisely. Rather they have become in the truest sense ‘human resources’; nameless and faceless ciphers to be exploited to the maximum and disposed of at will. Both Sabbath and Sabbatical are anachronisms in the ever-accelerating drive toward the bottom line. Indeed even our academies of higher learning, are abandoning the sacrosanct Sabbatical so necessary for scholars to recharge their intellectual batteries and produce the creative work necessary to drive civilization forward.
Ours is a society of slaves posing as masters. After all, we have the toys and the credit cards to make it appear as if we are in charge of our destinies. Perhaps we should contemplate the unifying message of Parshat Behar to get a perspective. But then, who has the time?