In Parshat Behar, we see that activism dates back to the days of the Torah. During the Shmita (Sabbatical) year we are taught to have compassion for those who have less as ideally all of the fields should be “hefker”, left open for others to take what they need.
According to the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim, Guide for the Perplexed:
Some of the laws of Shmita imply sympathy with our fellow men and promote the well being of mankind; for in reference to these precepts it is stated in the Torah: “That the poor of your people may eat” (Shmot 23:11).
Rabbi Mordechai Gumpil agrees with the Rambam:
This law was given in order that we may show sympathy for our fellow men who have neither land nor vineyards, that they may be happy in the Shmita year as the wealthy are happy every year.
Kli Yakar points out that the Shmita year contains factors conducive to union and peace. For since no sowing or planting is allowed, the poor may eat freely and none may store produce and treat it as his own, this undoubtedly creates favorable conditions towards peace, because all strife originates from the attitude of “mine is mine” and people claiming their rights. But in the seventh year all are equal- this can indeed generate peace.
Nehama Leibowitz adds that Kli Yakar emphasized the importance of brotherhood, not just equality.
In Pirkei Avot 5:13 we learn:
There are four character types among people:
- One who says, ‘My property is mine and yours is yours,’ is an average character type. But some say that this is characteristic of Sdom.
- ‘Mine is yours and yours is mine,’ is an unlearned person.
- ‘Mine is yours and yours is yours,’ is scrupulously pious.
- ‘Yours is mine and mine is mine’ is wicked.
We learn from this mishna that the idea of ‘every man for himself’ is not a Jewish concept and the laws of Shmitta teach us the importance of social justice.