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Parashat BeHar: The Sabbatical Year and Equity

I often interview applicants for Brown University, my alma mater. These interviews have been eye opening, meeting with remarkable young adults. The most inspiring people I have met are often people of color. One student spoke of her achievements in light of her many personal challenges. She spoke about how she needs to travel over an hour just to go to a good school, work after school to pay for her living expenses, assist in the parenting of her siblings, and deal with a family who tells her that the ‘system is rigged’ against you, and why even bother. At one point in our meeting, she begins to cry, telling me the personal challenges she has had to get to where she is; it is clear she has no emotional support from her parents and most of her community as well. “My uncle calls me an Oreo?”  Seeing I am perplexed, she looks at me and says, “That means I am black on the outside and white on the inside.”

As I speak to this 17-year-old girl, I think about my children who study in private Jewish day school, go to overnight summer camp, and participate in a myriad of enrichment programs that most cannot imagine.  They have parents who believe in them and have models of leadership all around them.  People that they can emulate and aspire to be. They do not have friends who have been killed gang violence and feel safe in their communities. This young girl may be as accomplished as my own children, but the obstacles she has had to overcome to get to where my children are now is remarkable….

When a Jew eats, one is enjoined by our tradition to make a beracha rishona and beracha achrona, a blessing both before and after eating. What is the purpose of a blessing before eating?  One may very well understand the blessing following a meal; one is satiated and naturally thanks God for the bounty they have just received. When we are invited to the home of a friend to eat, it is only polite to thank the host following the meal. However, one would not thank the host before the meal is put on the table!  The Talmud grapples with this question:

Rabbi Judah said in the name of Samuel: To enjoy anything of this world without a benediction is like making personal use of things consecrated to heaven, since it says. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. Rabbi  Levi [then] contrasted two texts. It is written, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’ (Psalms 24:1), and it is also written, ‘The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth hath He given to the children of men!(Psalms 115:6)’ There is no contradiction [between the verses]: in the one case it is before a blessing has been said in the other case after.  (B.T. Berachot 35a)

The rabbis make a daring claim: before one makes a blessing, the heavens and earth all belong to God, and one cannot therefore take what is not theirs. Following the blessing ‘the earth’ is given to humanity to benefit. The implication of this text is radical, as it equates the partaking of food without a blessing to actually stealing from God. The first blessing therefore is a request to God to have permission to benefit from the bounty of this world, which includes produce you created yourself. In our analogy above, the opening blessing is actually a request from the host for the permission to eat!

Let us not underestimate the implications of this concept, confusing it with a general view of gratitude. We may feel gratitude for all the bounty we own and we might recognize how fortunate we are. However, the rabbis are challenging us to consider the very notion of ownership itself. We would not naturally ask permission to eat that which we produced, bought, or earned with our own labor, money or sweat.  If we pry deeper, the Torah is making a radical statement about ownership- mainly that it is a relative, not an absolute value.  No one owns anything in any real sense; they merely have rights of use.  If I have bought or produced something, is it mine? If I own land and benefit from that which is on my land, is it mine?  In sum- no. As God created the entire universe, there is only one true owner.  God is always the prior owner. We merely have the rights of usage; we are fortunate recipients of God’s blessings.

This fundamental concept of berachot (blessings), which grows out of the concept that God created the entire universe, is developed writ large in Parashat Behar. Every concept in the parasha points in this direction. The laws of the Sabbatical year teach us that the land must be left fallow every seventh year, the shemittah (Leviticus 25:4-5).  Just like there is a Shabbat of days on a personal and micro-level, there is a Shabbat of years on a communal and macro-level. Both are reminders that our world, driven by human initiative and creativity, must retreat before the realization that these concepts are relative. We are in essence not allowed to work our own land, because in reality we are given the rights of usage and not absolute ownership.  The land is not an object to be used in any way I wish. In next week’s parashah the Torah is very explicit about the price of not observing the shemittah. Discussing the exile of the Jewish people from their land, the Torah states

Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate, and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it. (Leviticus 26:36-37)

The Torah poetically equates the number of years of exile to the number of years when the people failed to observe the Sabbath of the land. In other words, the people abused their right of usage, and therefore are evicted from the property.

However, on a Biblical level, the reforms of the sabbatical year transcend the concept of land and impact the world of people and debts. On the seventh year Hebrew servants are released and debt is cancelled.  Finally, during the ‘Shabbat of the Sabbatical cycle”, the fiftieth Jubilee year (Yovel), the Torah teaches a value which in every sense is revolutionary, almost unimaginable in a modern economy.  During this year land is returned to its original owner, debts are again canceled, and those who needed to sell themselves into slavery to pay debts are freed (Leviticus 25:8-54).  In other words, the Torah is mandating an active redistribution of wealth.  The justification?  “The land shall not be sold forever: for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me (gerim v’toshavim)” (Leviticus 25:24).  To call landowners ‘strangers and sojourners’ is curious to say the least. Not even the Jewish people have a ‘natural right’ to the land. Only God has a natural right to ownership.

Whether this system ever existed or is an aspirational utopian dream is difficult to know.  Clearly, chazal (the Rabbis) understood that this vision was not realizable in their generation and had to make accommodations to the practical reality that many people would not leave the land fallow and would not make loans if they knew they would soon be canceled.  Thus, halakha accommodates to ‘reality.’  But the reality in which we live depends upon how we as individuals and communities decide to live.  Reality can change- if we want it to.

Still, the Torah challenges us today to reconsider the notions of property, entitlement, and ownership.[1]  Our society has produced more innovation and more economic prosperity than any time in history.  Free private industry and enterprise is at the core of our economic system. However, what is the price we pay?  Are there other values, other than ‘the bottom line,’ which should inform policy?  Are there not those who suffer in the process, societal ‘stakeholders’ in our decisions, and do we not have a responsibility to them?  While we might speak of equal opportunity before the law, many in our society simply do not have the resources nor the access many of us might have.  The questions of not only equality, but equity are important questions to ask in our generation and point to a moral sensitivity to our fellow citizen and human being.

I think about that young 17-year-old girl many years ago, and I ask myself, “What obligation do I have to her.” We exist in the same physical spaces but live in separate universes. I write a letter to the Brown University admissions office and write how I am deeply inspired by the spirit of this person, and to please give people like her the opportunities I was afforded. The girl was waitlisted. So many people are on waitlists, hoping and waiting for chances that I had.

Many people question the relevance of ‘ritual commandments,’ but on further reflection, the simple blessing of hamotzi on the bread has everything do with politics, society, and justice. It speaks to how we look at our sense of ownership and access, and challenges us to be mindful of that.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] To be clear, Jewish law is not ‘capitalistic’ nor ‘socialist’.  Those are anachronistic terms. A good starting point to consider a Jewish economic theory in a modern economy is the study by Aaron Levine and Moses Pava, The Orthodox Forum- Jewish Business Ethics: The Firm and Its Stakeholders (USA: Aaronson, 1999).

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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