Parashat Behar

Parashat Behar
By Rabbi Aryeh Meir

As we celebrate Israel’s sixtieth anniversary, it is appropriate to reflect on the kind of society that has emerged with the advent of Israel’s great “economic miracle.” I begin by quoting several reflections on Israeli society:

The average Israeli works twelve years before his cumulative pay equals the monthly salary of the CEO of a large firm. The average wage for women is two thirds of that for men while Arabs earn, on average, 30% less than Jews. But those may not be the most alarming figures revealed in a new study conducted by the Adva Institute, researchers also report the number of high school students eligible for matriculation certificates is on a steep decline. The institute displays a frightening and gloomy portrait of the situation of Israeli society. The gaps between Israel’s rich and poor are only growing, the institute says, despite the impressive economic growth registered on the national level. “Promises made by politicians, that the growth will seep downward, are not being fulfilled,” the researches write. (ynet news)

In the first years of the state, the gap between the haves and the have-nots (among Jews) was minimal. Statistical records collected after 1957 show that for nearly twenty years there was little change in the income gap between the richest and poorest Israelis. Now wealthy Israelis earn 48 times the amount earned by the poorest Israelis (A. Kaspi, Ha’aretz, 2 October 1998)

Now let us turn to our Torah portion:

You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years – so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the shofar loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the shofar sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. (Lev. 25:8-10)

According to this biblical law, all land holdings that had been sold or given up by the original owners since the previous jubilee year is to return to those original owners. And all Israelites who had become indentured are to receive their freedom. A few verses later, the Torah explains the reason for this law: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”(v. 23)

Knowing full well that, in every society, wealth becomes unevenly distributed, creating rich and poor, the Torah here legislates that, periodically, there must be a redistribution of wealth.

In his introduction to Shabbat Ha-aretz (The Sabbath of the Land), Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook picks up on the fact that the Jubilee begins with the sounding of a shofar on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement:

The divine ethereal spirit of general forgiveness which is encountered by every individual on Yom Kippur assumes, through the sanctity of Jubilee, a public character when the nation is visited with a spirit of forgiveness and repentance in remedying all the injustices of the past . . . Individual members of the nation may have fallen short of the standards of a life infused with the sacred light of holiness and freedom and become slaves, forgetting their noble status . . . Then comes the restoration of individual self- respect and freedom . . . In place of the inequalities in land holdings brought about by human fallibility . . . the balance is restored in accord with the original property distribution at the dawn of the nation’s history . . . (N. Leibowitz, Studies in Vayikra.)

According to Rav Kook, it is the unequal distribution of wealth, the result of unregulated free market forces, that limits human freedom and suppresses the light of God’s holiness from reaching every individual. The proclamation of return of land and of human freedom is part of a process of teshuvah, of repentance, of the entire nation, for the sin of allowing poverty to exist in the midst of wealth. The remedy is d’ror, release, where “every person returns to his holdings and to his family” in freedom and dignity.

What a lesson for Israel and for every nation! The state of Israel has achieved great economic success – but not for all. Like our own society, the numbers of poor increase in the midst of great wealth. We need to learn from the teachings of the Torah in our parashah – that economic injustice is a moral wrong and that a nation that aspires to be a “light unto the nations” must commit itself to policies that narrow the economic and social gaps that erode human dignity and the sense of individual self-worth.

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Rabbi Aryeh Meir is a faculty member and Dean of Admissions, AJR.