This week’s Torah portion is Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2.
The Book of Leviticus is largely a job description for the priesthood, but Behar deviates from that topic and focuses on the following issues:
The Sabbatical year (every 7 years)
The Jubilee year (every 50 years)
Who owns the land, and who has rights to the land
Israelite and non-Israelite slaves.
While it may not appear obvious from that list, the primary topic is actually economics and its relationship to social cohesion. And like many other aspects of Torah, the ideas outlined here have had a very powerful impact on Western economic theory and policy.
The Sabbatical year takes the idea of the human need for rest and applies it to the land. The land, if it is to be productive, needs periodic rest from cultivation to rehabilitate itself. This is a very early (perhaps even the first) historic documentation of this critical land management idea. The Torah then mentions an essential, but often overlooked detail. In verse 20, the people ask: “What will we eat since we have not planted, nor can we harvest crops?” God answers that God will provide abundance. However, an obvious alternative is to rotate fallow fields year by year. Torah rejects that solution. Why?
Because there is critical side benefit from the non-rotating policy. We must learn to save, and build up our savings year by year. This implicit idea of building a practice of saving (and future planning) is as critical as the land management aspect of the Sabbatical year, and has become one of the essential issues of economic theory and policy around the world.
The Jubilee year introduces equally compelling economic concepts. Verse 10 states: “Each man shall return to his hereditary property” in the Jubilee. In other words, every 50 years land ownership reverts back to its original owner. Here we see the Torah attempting to resolve two competing forces: economic freedom vs. economic equality. As Thomas Piketty makes compellingly clear in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” economic freedom leads to extreme disparity of income, and such disparities can create serious instabilities and conflicts in a nation. So, while the Torah promotes economic freedom, it mandates a periodic “renormalization” toward economic equality.
While many books have been devoted to the topic of human slavery, let me mention just one idea we can derive from the Torah’s treatment of slavery. Surprisingly, Torah does not outlaw slavery, but it requires Hebrew slaves to be treated humanely (in distinction to non-Hebrew slaves). By the time of the Talmud, the rabbis had eliminated that distinction, requiring all slaves to be treated humanely. It was not until the 19th century that Western civilization acknowledged the unacceptability of any kind of slavery, and we are still struggling with the enduring effects of dehumanization due to slavery.
Rulings from this parshah have had profound effects on economic policies in the Western world for nearly 2,000 years, and its rulings on slavery give us some rare and very useful evidence for measuring the pace of human transformation from the time a reformist idea is born until it becomes integrated into human thinking and behavior.
Stephen Berer is a writer, working on the epic story of the Eternal Jew. He is education coordinator at Shirat HaNefesh and a teacher at Tifereth Israel Congregation.