By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant This week’s Torah Parsha (BO) continues with the story of Exodus. God had already inflicted seven devastating plagues on Egypt, subsequent to the Pharaoh’s...
This week, we read a double Parshiot, from the Torah (BEHAR) and (BECHKOTAI), the finale of the Book of LEVUTICUS. The primary themes of Parsha (BEHAR) are laws and commandments, pertaining 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 (i.e. ‘Shemitah’) to the Lord; all debts are to be released; slaves are to be set free; the land shall lay fallow; and its produce available for everyone” (2).
In addition, God said: “And you shall count for yourselves, seven Sabbatical years, seven times, forty-nine years; and, the fiftieth year shall be a grand Jubilee” (3). During the Jubilee year (with some minor exceptions), ancestral land will be returned to its original owners. Included in God’s statement was a commandment for a complete and total release of slaves (as opposed to the one year release, during the ‘Shemitah’); and, a commandment to help those in financial need. Loans were to be given, when necessary; but applying interest to these loans was completely prohibited: “If any of your fellow Jews become poor; and, 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 may have lent to them, need not be repaid to you” (4).
Despite the sheer antiquity of these laws, time and again, they have inspired those wrestling with issues of liberty, equality and justice. The verse in this Torah Parsha (BEHAR), “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (5) is inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, as an iconic symbol of freedom (6).The approach of the Torah regarding economic policy in biblical times is highly unique.
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. However, Judaism was never dismissive of work or a productive economy. Even in ancient times, there existed ‘income inequality’. However, Judaism never favored the creation of a ‘leisure class’: “Whenever and however you work, you are always learning; and, maintaining a sense of dignity and self-esteem” (7).
Judaism is the religion of a people born into slavery, longing for redemption. The greatest assault of slavery against an individual’s pride is that it deprives a person of the ownership of the wealth, which he or she creates. At the core of the Torah is God’s defense of freedom; and “one of the most powerful manifestations of freedom is assets, and/or private property, as the basis of economic independence” (8). The ideal society envisioned by our prophets is one in which each person is able to sit “underneath his own fig tree” (9).
This is what the laws presented in Parsha (BEHAR) represent. It tells us that an economic system must exist within a moral framework. It may not achieve total economic equality; but, it must recognize the absolute necessity to maintain human dignity.
These commandments provide us with a profoundly humane version of society. We are responsible for each other; and, implicated in each other’s fate. Those, who are blessed with more than they require share some of the 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 ‘tzedakah’.
The second Parsha for this week (BECHUKOTAI) begins with stunning clarity of the terms of Jewish life under the covenant. In the first part, there is an idyllic picture of the blessing of Divine favor. If the Israelites follow God’s decrees and keep His commandments, there will be rain; the earth will yield its fruit; the people will flourish; they will have children; and, the Divine Presence will be in their midst (10).
The other side of the equation is terrifying with the curses which will befall the nation, should the People fail to honor their mission as a ‘holy nation’:
“But, if you will not listen to me and carry out these commandments, I will bring upon you sudden terror; wasting diseases; and, fever that will destroy your sight, and drain away your life; you will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it; if after all of this, you still will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins; seven times over; I will break down your stubborn pride, and make the sky above you like iron, and the ground beneath you like bronze; I will turn your cities into ruins, and destroy your Sanctuaries; I will waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled; as for those of you, who still live amongst your enemies, I will make your hearts so fearful, that the sound of a windblown leaf will put you into flight; you will run as though fleeing from the sword; and you will fall, although no one is actually pursuing you” (11).
Read in its entirety, this passage is shattering in its impact, most particularly because so much of it came true at various times of Jewish history.
All of this is only viable, as long as the Jewish people lived together, in one nation, on their own land. But, what when the Jews suffered defeat and exile; and were eventually scattered across the earth? They no longer had any of the conventional lineaments of a nation. They were no longer living in the same place, with the same language. Rashi and his family were living in northern Europe, speaking French (12); Maimonides was living in Muslim Egypt speaking and writing in Arabic (13).
Nor did the Jews share the same fate. Those, in northern Europe were suffering persecution and massacres, during the Crusades. The Jews of Spain were being expelled and compelled to wander around the world, as refugees. In later years, there were more horrors for the Jews, who migrated to Eastern Europe, and beyond. What possibly constituted these Jews as a single nation?
Similar to a situation, where a parent warns a child of horrifying consequences, for disobedience, Parsha (BECHUKOTAI) ends with a momentous hope:
“But despite all else, when you are in enemy territory, I will not reject or despise you; I will never break my covenant with you, because I am the Lord, your God; and, for your sake, I will always remember the covenant I made with your forefathers” (14).
Even in their worst hours, according to this final Parsha of LEVITICUS, the Jewish people would never be destroyed. It was the covenant that enabled the Israelites to become a nation; bound them to one another; and, bound them to God. This same covenant links every Jew to one another, with the same ties of mutual responsibility.
(1) LEVUTICUS (25:3)
(2) LEVITICUS (25:4)
(3) LEVITICUS (25:8-9)
(4) LEVITICUS (25:35-37)
(5) LEVITICUS (25:10)
(6) American Jewish World (NY, NY)
(7) Maimonides “Laws of Charity”
(8) www.theGuardian.com (2016)
(9) Micah (4:4)
(10) LEVITICUS (26:3-26:6)
(11) LEVITICUS (26:14-36)
(13) Jewish Virtual Library
(14) LEVITICUS (26:44-45)