“Bernie Sanders Meets Parashat Behar”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Behar, introduces many of the Torah’s revolutionary economic ideas (see Behar 5765-2005).

For millennia, Jews have been unfairly portrayed as hard-core capitalists and have long been vilified as usurious money lenders. Much of this is due to the tragic history of Jews in Christian lands. In many countries, money lending for interest was forbidden to Christians. The Jews, who could not own land or join trade guilds, were forced to engage in banking and money lending.

Ironically, parashat Behar is one of the primary sources cited by scholars to characterize Judaism’s particularly strong reservations regarding normative capitalism. The Torah boldly proclaims in Leviticus 25:36, אַל תִּקַּח מֵאִתּוֹ נֶשֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּית, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱ-לֹקֶיךָ, וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ, Do not take interest or increase from him [your brother who becomes impoverished], you shall fear your G-d–and let your brother live with you.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that since the real owner of money (read “capital”) is G-d, money is not regarded by Judaism as being of particular significance. On the other hand, land is seen as the true source of sustenance. Says Rabbi Hirsch, “For land and soil are the source of all national wealth, and all movable goods are, in the first instance, the result and product of the blessing of the soil.”

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus argues that שְׁמִיטָּה–“shmitah,” the prohibition to work the land during the seventh year of the sabbatical cycle, that is extensively described in this week’s parasha, underscores the dangers of becoming obsessed with work. Indeed, it is particularly the Shmitah that teaches Jews to “nullify themselves” to the will of G-d.

Parashat Behar opens with G-d speaking to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying, Leviticus 25:2, דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם, וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַהשׁם, Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: “When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for the L-rd.” Rashi immediately raises the question, “What does the matter of “Shmitah,” (the sabbatical year) have to do with Mount Sinai? After all, were not all the commandments of G-d stated at Sinai?” Rashi responds, that Sinai is purposely mentioned here to teach that just as Shmitah, its general rules, its details and its fine points were stated at Sinai, so too were all the commandments, their general and fine points stated at Sinai.

Rabbi Pincus argues that Rashi’s statement comes to emphasize that in addition to teaching that all the mitzvot were received from G-d at Sinai, this verse also underscores that all mitzvot must be seen through the prism of the mitzvah of Shmitah. Because Shmitah is such a special mitzvah among all the mitzvot, its light radiates upon all the other mitzvot.

From the time of the Patriarchs, agriculture played a central role in Jewish life. The Shemah prayer (Deuteronomy 11:13-14) emphasizes that if the people are loyal to G-d, then the Al-mighty Himself will provide rain and the land will yield its produce. Jews rarely served as dealers of gold and silver or engaged in factory work. In ancient times, Jews were either farmers or shepherds, but primarily agriculturalists who tilled the land and planted vineyards.

By observing the weekly Shabbat and ceasing from labor, Jews declared their own self-nullification to the will of G-d, showing that all sustenance is from G-d. However, even the weekly act of observing the Shabbat does not necessarily show that work must not be the “defining factor” in one’s life. It may simply be that a fatigued farmer is taking a day off from work to rest.

That is not true regarding the year of Shmitah, when a farmer takes an entire year off from farming. The entire economy stops and is often placed at risk. Private fields become public property, allowing anyone to come and pick the products that he/she needs. Debts that were contracted during the previous six years must be forgiven, profoundly underscoring how full trust is placed in the hands of G-d and how G-d’s will becomes the ultimate determining factor rather than one’s own will.

If some of these ideas sound a bit familiar it may be because, to a certain extent, we hear a similar message emanating at times from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. He frequently proclaims that the capitalistic system is exploitive, especially of the masses and the lower classes. To his followers, it is clearly unjust that the one percent has amassed most of the wealth of the country.

It is not unusual for citizens in capitalistic systems to primarily identify themselves by their professions and what they do for a living. Members of capitalist societies hardly ever identify themselves as mothers, fathers, husbands, or wives. The entire focus is on how one makes money and how one earns a living. Ironically, the Jews, who have been so closely identified by others with capitalism, come from a tradition that boldly proclaims that we are much more than how we make our living. In fact, the Torah proclaims that it is necessary for Jews to cease work for an entire year in order to demonstrate that what we think we own and what we believe we possess, is not ours and that indeed “the earth and its fullness belong to G-d.” (Psalms 24:1)

Rabbi Pincus underscores this with a touch of irony, recalling how frequently people find excuses by invoking the primacy of work. When asked, “Why didn’t you attend the Torah class yesterday?” They respond, “I had an important business meeting in Tel Aviv.” When questioned, “Why did you run out before the end of prayers?” They answer, “I woke up late and had to rush, so that I wouldn’t be late to the office.” This attitude underscores how earning a living has become primary, while the relationship with G-d is secondary.

Says Rabbi Pincus, Rashi’s message is intended to show that just as Shmitah, the sabbatical year is from Sinai, so too are all the mitzvot from Sinai. G-d, Who provides for us is primary, as are His mitzvot. Everything else is secondary.

The Torah, in Leviticus 25:20-21, states that after enduring a full year of Shmitah, the people will ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year? Behold! We will not sew and not gather in our crops!” G-d responds, וְצִוִּיתִי אֶת בִּרְכָתִי, “I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield a crop sufficient for the coming three-year period. G-d will make certain that the works of our hands and our businesses will be blessed.”

What can be more reassuring than a promise from G-d Al-mighty that He will ordain His infinite blessing upon us?!

Perhaps the columnist and commentator, Dennis Prager, said it best when he wrote: No man has ever said on his deathbed, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office!!”


May you be blessed.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Wednesday night, May 25th and continue all day Thursday, May 26th, 2016. The Omer period is the 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a special day because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.