Land, labor, liberty
May 20, 2005
In this week's Torah portion, Behar, God instructs Moses to speak to the Israelites concerning the shmita and yovel, the sabbatical and jubilee years. Every seventh year, God says, shall be a sabbatical year for the land, during which no fields may be sown, nor vineyards planted. Everyone in the land, up to and including slaves, resident aliens, and beasts of the field, will be sustained by natural abundance. And after a cycle of seven-times-seven years, every fiftieth year is a jubilee, during which everyone returns to their ancestral land-holdings (e.g. all land sales are annulled) and every indentured servant is freed.
Whether or not these practices were followed in antiquity is a matter of some debate. Some scholars - from Rabbi Arthur Waskow to the folks at the American Journal of Economics and Sociology -- assume that they were; others argue that going a year, and periodically two (the 49th and 50th year), without planting would have reduced the Israelites to starvation rations, making them easy targets for attack. In any event, the rabbis of the post-Temple age argued that this teaching was only meant to apply to the land of Israel, so it doesn't hold in the Diaspora. And though some today say that the shmita and yovel should be reinstituted in the modern state of Israel, others argue that they should only hold when the majority of the world's Jews live in Israel, or that they will be followed again in the Messianic Age but clearly we're not there yet.
That said, the question that fascinates me most is (surprise!) not the historical one but the theological one. What does it mean that these words are in our holiest text? What does it tell us about Jewish understandings of land, labor, and liberty that our scripture depicts God speaking directly to Moses about the importance of sabbatical and jubilee? How can this week's Torah portion enhance our understanding of God?
When I read parashat Behar, I see a God Who insists that labor be balanced by rest. Just as we balance the hubbub of workweek with a day of Shabbat, so we balance the earth's seven years of producing with a year to lie fallow. Rotating cycles of crops with cycles of rest (or planting something like winter wheat, then plowing it back into the earth) enables land to stay fertile, to remain a source of abundance, and this is not only common sense but holy obligation. I see a God concerned with making sure we understand that the land we sell cannot, in some fundamental sense, be transferred. We may lease our holdings to one another for a year, or a lifetime, or the length of human history, but ultimately all lands return to their original Owner.
And I see a God Who wants us to recognize that servitude is a temporary condition. That no matter what dire straits we may enter through financial necessity, once in every lifetime we should wipe the slate clean and enable each other to begin afresh. Think for a moment about the millions of Americans shackled by credit card debt (maybe you're one of them) and imagine the liberation which would ensue if those debts were wiped out at every fiftieth year! (Now that would truly be a jubilee.)
Of course, it's hard to imagine the major banks behind our credit cards making such a decision -- which highlights how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to carry out the practical commandments in this week's Torah portion. Even so, they can heighten our consciousness. Leaving all farms unworked for every seventh year is probably unreasonable (and maybe unethical, in a world still plagued by hunger), but maybe we can learn something about the importance of treating our land with the same holy care we seek to show ourselves. Deconstructing property rights would probably have disastrous effects on the global economy, but maybe we can learn something about conceiving of our property as borrowed, from our children who will inherit it or from God Who speaks it constantly into being. Cancelling all debts every fiftieth year would almost certainly wreak havoc on world markets, but maybe we can learn something about loan forgiveness (a telling phrase!)
A fascinating side note: as I translated the verses aloud this morning, Jeff stopped me and reread one verse (Leviticus 25:10), in Hebrew and then in English: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land, for all of its inhabitants..." He asked if I could place the text in another familiar context. My first guess was the Declaration of Independence. I was close, but not quite there. Does the verse ring a bell for you? It should; it's inscribed on the Liberty Bell.
The Founding Fathers' writings are rife with images from the Hebrew Scriptures. It strikes me as interesting that the Founders spoke so often in Torah terms. Some have argued that they saw themselves as inheritors of the Israelite tradition: fleeing from the Mitzrayim of Great Britain to establish a new nation by the work of their hands, in the fertile land to which God had led them. Naturally both nation-creation narratives are problematic. (For one thing, both stories tend to gloss over the fate of the lands' original inhabitants, unlucky enough to be in the way when the new folks swept in.) But I think the parallel wasn't lost on the men who founded the United States, and I think the decision to inscribe a line from Behar on the Liberty Bell is relevant.
It might behoove us to reflect on how the lessons of this week's Torah portion could be brought to bear on American politics and policy. In meditation circles, the sound of a bell is meant to awaken (much like the sound of the shofar which we blow during the Days of Awe, a practice which also comes from this Torah portion): maybe we need to find a rousing shofar blast in our country's great bell, to awaken ourselves to the holy possibilities of liberty.