By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant

 

In the Book of EXODUS, we read how God miraculously overcame all obstacles to finally liberate the Israelites from over 400 years of slavery and bondage, in Egypt. The primary focus of the Book of LEVITICUS (which follows the Book of EXODUS) is to create a civilized society for the unruly Israelites; who were unaware of any form of organization; customs; or, appropriate behavior when interacting with other members of their community.

Most of the Book of LEVITICUS is replete with lists and enumerations of commandments, directives, instructions, and consequential punishments for any deviation from these dictates.

This week’s Parsha (BEHAR), sets forth a number of laws relating to freedom, equality, and charity with ‘dignity’. The Lord spoke to Moses and said: “Tell the children of Israel, you may sow your field for six years, prune your vineyard, and gather its produce for your own use” (1). Further, He told Moses: “But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath to the Lord; the fields should not be sown, nor the vineyards pruned” (2).

During the Sabbatical year all debts were released, slaves were set free, the land lay fallow and its produce belonged to everyone. In addition, God said: “And you shall count for yourselves seven Sabbatical years, seven times, forty-nine years. The fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee (3). During the Jubilee year (with some minor exceptions), ancestral land will be returned to its original owners. Included in God’s statement about the Jubilee year was a commandment to help the needy: “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor, and are unable to support themselves, lend them the money they need; do this with dignity; do not shame them; let them live with you until they no longer need your help; and any money you lent to them, need not be re-paid to you” (4).

 

Despite the sheer antiquity of these laws, time and again, they have inspired those wrestling with issue of liberty, equity, and justice. The approach of the Torah to economic policy is unusual. Clearly, we can make no direct inference from laws given over three thousand years ago in an age of agriculture, to the circumstances of the twenty-first century, with a global economy and international corporations. Judaism was never dismissive of work or the productive economy. Even in ancient times, there existed ‘income inequality’. However, Judaism never favored the creation of a ‘leisure class’. Wherever or how you work, you are always learning, and maintaining a sense of dignity and self-esteem.

Judaism is the religion of a people born into slavery, longing for redemption; and, the great assault of slavery against human dignity is that it deprives a person of the ownership of the wealth which he or she creates.

That is what the legislation contained in Parsha (BEHAR) represents. It tells us that an economic system must exist within a moral framework. It may not be able to achieve economic equality; but, it must recognize the need for human dignity.

At the heart of these laws is a profoundly humane version of society. We are responsible for one another, and implicated in one another’s fate. Those, who are blessed with more than they require should share some of that surfeit with those who have less than they need. In Judaism, this is not a matter of charity, but justice….that is the true meaning of the word ‘tzedakah’.

FOOTNOTES:

(1) LEVITICUS (25:3)

(2) LEVITICUS (25:4)

(3) LEVITICUS (25:8-9)

(4) LEVITICUS (25:35-37)