Drash on Parashat Behar 2019
Cantor David Bentley
Beit Or v'Shalom (Brisbane) and Temple Shalom Gold Coast
One of the great things about our Torah is that it tells us, in practical terms, how to achieve holiness. The idea of “kodesh” is not an abstract idea, nor is it something that each of us must figure out for ourselves. Indeed, the Torah often contains detailed instructions.
Some of the measures it sets out are seemingly easy things that we can practice on a daily basis, such as the commandments we read a few weeks ago. These included such things as using honest weights in commerce, paying labourers on time, and leaving some of the produce of field and vineyard for the poor and the stranger. These were part of a broad platform of measures designed to make ancient Israel a fair, just and compassionate society. This was, and is, an important way to bring holiness into our daily lives and the lives of those around us.
In addition to these smaller (but not trivial) acts we can do on a daily basis, the Torah also sets out sweeping acts that are much harder to embrace and put into practice. Creating fair, just and unbiased courts of law is one of those. This week’s portion is another – it gives us the laws of Shmitah and the Yovel (or Jubilee) year.
We are instructed to observe the seventh year, called Shmitah, as one of “rest” for the land. We are also told to count off seven “weeks” of years, that is, to take seven times seven years, and have the “yovel” or Jubilee every fiftieth year – in which not only is the land to lie fallow (as in Shmitah years), but additionally, Israelite slaves are to be freed, debts forgiven, and control of any land which has been sold is to revert to its original ancestral families.
Every fifty years, every two or three generations, a great equalisation occurs. To put it into modern terms, these laws do something quite fundamental: economic equality is rebooted! They also reinforce the Torah values that underpin society – things like human dignity, compassion, humility, and love of one another.
Consider: when those who have accumulated great wealth know that much of it will be stripped of them at the Jubilee, might this not soften any inclination they might have to abuse the power and privilege that often seems to go along with being wealthy? Might it not also help them to avoid becoming too aloof from the problems and struggles that are suffered by less fortunate members of society?
And would the poor, too, not think differently, knowing the Jubilee year would, eventually, come? Would they not be given hope? They knew, even as they continued to endure daily struggle, that they, or at least their offspring, would not be caught in a never-ending, intergenerational poverty trap. There was a light at the end of the tunnel even if it was some way off.
In our own age the Shmitah year has been reinstituted but not the Jubilee. Modern society is so changed from that of our Biblical forebears that if we did bring back Shmitah, it would have no real impact, not in practical terms.
We now deal with inequality by having a raft of measures controlled by the government on behalf of the entire society. These include pension schemes, unemployment benefits, universal health care, free education, progressive tax systems and so on. For most of us, our role is limited to paying the taxes that fund these measures. We might be at a distance from it – we are no longer letting the poor into our own fields and vineyards but we are still doing something that allows it to happen.
But it’s not just about money. There is much more we can do, particularly for those of us who live in Western democracies. We can vote (with our conscience, not our hip-pocket nerve), we can do volunteer work, we can reach out to those who might be in need of a helping hand in some way, we can work for change through local organisations or global ones, we can raise issues and lobby on social media, we can make ethical purchases. If we do happen to have money, we can donate to worthy causes, as many in the Jewish community certainly do. We have never had it so good when it comes to finding ways to bring Torah into the world.
We don’t need to wait fifty years.