“The Torah’s Revolutionary Economic System”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Behar is an extraordinarily challenging and revolutionary parasha.

The Torah, in Leviticus 25:2 proclaims: “V’shahv’tah ha’aretz Shabbat la’Hashem,” and the land shall keep a Sabbath unto G-d. Just as the human being must have Shabbat, a day of rest, so the land must have its rest–the Sabbatical year known as shemita. Farmers may work the land for six years, but on the seventh year the land is to lie fallow and be “released” from cultivation.

The Torah makes it clear that contrary to popular perception, the land is not the absolute possession of the human being, but rather belongs to G-d, and is to be held in trust for G-d’s purposes. This idea was so revolutionary, that the ancient peoples who lived alongside the Jews and saw them practice the laws of shemita, had trouble comprehending their behavior. In fact, the Roman historian, Tacitus, attributed the practice of shemita to laziness on the part of the Jews.

During the Sabbatical year the land was devoted to G-d, by being placed at the service of the poor and the animals. During the Sabbatical cycle as the land lay fallow, all fields were open to the public who were entitled to come and take food from whatever grew wildly for their daily needs. Furthermore, in Deuteronomy 36:10, we learn that the seventh year was to be set aside as a time for national education, and that all Jews, men, women and children were to be exposed to the teachings and duties of the Torah. In his commentary on the Pentateuch, Rabbi Joseph Hertz notes that while the leaders of most ancient peoples worked diligently to keep knowledge away from the masses, it was “the glory of Moses” that he made Torah knowledge universally available to all the Jews, young and old alike (page 531).

Parashat Behar also introduces the concept of the Jubilee, known in Hebrew as Yovel. In the fiftieth year, the year after the seventh year of the seventh Sabbatical cycle, all land reverted back to its original tribal owners. Hebrew servants and their families were emancipated, and almost all property, returned to the original owners. This system assured that no family or tribe was to be locked into perpetual poverty, and that at least every fifty years the downtrodden were able to regain their family real estate holdings and start to rebuild their lives, without the terrible burdens of old debts. The American social philosopher, Henry George, is quoted as saying, “It is not the protection of property, but the protection of humanity, that is the aim of the Mosaic code.”

A law that is often overlooked, is the regulation regarding the sale of individual homes. All individual homes that had been sold during the previous years were also returned to their original owners in the Jubilee year, with the exception of those homes built within a walled city. This, of course, significantly limited the amount of urban development that could take place on the land.

For those of us who live in capitalistic economic systems, the Torah’s laws regarding land and dwellings must seem strange at best, or foolhardy, at worst. Clearly the Torah does not support the practices of pure capitalism. Neither does the Torah advocate pure socialism, where wealth is divided by all equally. Wealth is certainly not a sin in the Torah’s eyes. The Torah system is in essence, a modified system that makes certain that the poor can be resuscitated and restored to a point where they can have a chance to regain their dignity.

Although it might be speculative, it seems to me that while the Torah expresses the centrality of caring for the needy, it is also articulates a rather strong anti-urban attitude. Those of us who live in brutally overpopulated cities, and dwell in buildings that are essentially stacked boxes of apartments, know well the price that is paid for this mass warehousing of humanity resulting in a lack of fellowship, neighborliness and friendliness. It may very well be that human beings do not have the capacity for the vast numbers of social and business relationships that are foisted upon them today, so that all relationships quickly become shallow, and hardly any of them are meaningful. Because of over urbanization and overstimulation, everything becomes superficial.

The Torah in effect says, don’t build high-rise dwellings with 30 apartments on a floor. Human beings need to live in manageable “herds,” even the animals know that. It is not unusual for a city dweller to learn that a next door neighbor had passed away several months earlier. This kind of stockpiling of bodies may be considered “dwelling” together, but it certainly is not “living” together.

Because of the Torah’s rules mandating restricted urbanization, there will inevitably be more open space. Perhaps the Torah is also informing us that it is important for every person to have a garden–a real agricultural experience. People simply need to feel a connection to the earth, to appreciate the role of the farmer, to behold the beauty of flowers blossoming, to feel connected to nature, and in that way connect more profoundly with G-d.

As our already frenetically-paced lifestyle becomes increasingly frenetic, increasingly compartmentalized, increasingly lonely, we see more people losing their humanity, becoming increasingly unsociable, increasingly violent.

Although the economic and social systems of parashat Behar are not readily replicable today, this parasha surely serves as most effective reminder about how careful we must be not to allow our present systems to reduce us as human beings. We need to stop to smell the roses. We need to stop to look our spouses and our children in the face, and have meaningful conversations with them. We need to kneel down more often, to help the child who cannot stand tall on his/her own. We need to regenerate our minds and our hearts by setting aside sacred time for study. That is the revolutionary message of parashat Behar. Let’s go for it!

May you be blessed.