Lazer Gurkow

Are We Equal?

Are we all truly equal? We all know someone smarter, wiser, more capable, industrious, resourceful, or creative, than us. We also know people less wise, capable, industrious, resourceful, or creative than us. So, are we truly equal?

The answer is yes, but not because we are all equally capable. Our skill sets are unique, but we are all equally worthy in G-d’s eyes. G-d needs each of us to be unique. If you could do everything I could do G-d would not need me. That He made me, tells me I can do something you can’t. That he made us both, tells we you are just as worthy as each other. We are each unique, but we are all equally worthy.

This is the underlying basis of the entire Western value system, but it is a uniquely Jewish idea; a gift bestowed by Judaism to the world.

Land Ownership
The caste system suggests some people are inherently worthier than others. This system was traditionally buttressed by land ownership. The monarch owned all the land. He would parcel it out to those he deemed worthy and leave the rest with nothing. The more land one owned, the worthier one was.

Judaism broke the caste by distributing the land of Israel to all twelve tribes equally. Each received in accordance with their population. The tribes, in turn, divided their land among each family. The message was that every Jew is just as worthy as others. Moreover, if one were forced to sell one’s ancestral lands, the Torah instructs their family and community to coalesce around them and help them repurchase it.

In case that was not enough, G-d decreed the agrarian Sabbatical. The idea was to annul private land ownership for an entire year. No one planted on their fields because all fields became public lands. Whatever grew in the fields or on the trees was collectively owned. The owner would line up with others to collect the fruit equally.

The message was that what is ours during the six years is not truly ours. The entire country belongs to all Jews equally. To institute order, G-d allowed us to treat our parcel of land for six years as if it belonged to us, but in the seventh year, we revert to collective ownership. This reminded each owner that when they gave to the poor during the six years, they were not donating their money. They were donating G-d’s money. And G-d’s money is inherently and collectively owned by the entire nation equally.

This reminds me of wonderful Chassidic couple, Rebbetzin Hinda and Rabbi Mendel Deitch, who survived World War Two in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. There was a famine in Samarkand, and this couple collected bread from the community every day to distribute to others. Hinda would cook a huge pot of soup and Mendel would ladle out the soup to anyone who would come. One day Mendel decided that it was inappropriate for him to stand behind the pot like a generous benefactor while others stand in line like paupers. Mendel instituted a rotation whereby every day a different recipient ladled out the soup. Mendel would line up with everyone else to receive soup in his own home.

Another important element of the Sabbatical is that the wealthy owner got a taste of the anxiety experienced by the pauper. The pauper goes to bed every night wondering from where tomorrow’s bread will come, and they place their trust solely in G-d. “I lift my eyes to the mountaintops; from where will come my salvation? My salvation comes from G-d, creator of Heaven and Earth” (Psalms 121:1–2).

Wealthy landowners don’t experience such worries. They worry about how to expand their business, obtain a mortgage, find new clients, etc. But they don’t worry about how to feed their children. Until the Sabbatical arrives and their cupboards are as bare as the poor person down the street. Now, they, too, worry. What if I line up in my field and the crops are all picked before I reach the end of the line? What if I rush to the neighbor’s field, but arrive too late?

“And if you ask, what will we eat in the seventh year if we don’t plant or gather our produce? And I will summon my blessing to you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years: (Numbers 25:20–21). During the Sabbatical, the wealthy like the poor rely on G-d.

Having this guttural experience every seven years allows the landowner to empathize with the pauper when they are asked for money. The landowner now knows precisely what the pauper is experiencing. He knows the anxiety, worries, and insecurity that plague the pauper and he is willing to help.

Capitalism, Socialism, and Judaism
Over the last century, world powers have experimented with many economic systems.

Socialism based on the doctrine of equal outcomes. No one is entitled to more than another. If you have more, the government redistributes your wealth—from each according to their means, to each according to their needs.

Capitalism based on the doctrine of equal opportunity. If you work and toil, you earn bread. If another works and toils, they will earn bread. If someone has less, they are welcome to be as industrious as you and earn more. Equal opportunity for all; we are each the architect of our success.

Each system has significant drawbacks and leaves many gaps. This is why no one is truly comfortable with either system. We might say of capitalism what Churchill said of democracy. It is the worst system except for all the others that were attempted.

With one notable exception. The Jewish system. It is a comprehensive system from which socialism and capitalism derive their strengths. Socialism derives its genuine commitment to equality and compassion from the Jewish sabbatical. Capitalism received its freedom and its focus on individual industriousness from the private ownership Jews practiced during the six years.

It is a system that rewards hard work but inculcates empathy, honors the collective but empowers the individual, by evening the playing field every seven years.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at
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