May 2020, Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

Dear Friends,

It is not for naught that throughout the ages the Jewish people have been somewhat stereotyped as a business savvy and financially intelligent nation. Whether due to the Torah’s emphasis on learning and education or the medieval prohibitions and discriminations against Jews forcing them to find professions solely in finance and lending, the Hebrew nation is undoubtedly been blessed as a economical and prosperous people.

However despite this historical cliché, this week’s double Parshiot of Behar-Bechukotai seemingly lists one of the potentially most disadvantageous financial decisions known to man, the Yovel:

“And you shall sanctify the 50th year, and proclaim freedom [for slaves] throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family.”

In this passage the Torah mandates that various major financial decisions were cancelled every 50 years. Slaves were redeemed, debt was cancelled and purchased land was returned to the original owner.

However why does the Torah endorse such a seemingly radical economic policy? Does the Torah assume to have a specific leaning to a Keynesian or Monetarist economy plan?

These ramifications of the fiscal policy in Yovel demonstrates this specific mitzvah mentioned in our Parsha is not an illustration of the Torah’s preference to a capitalist or socialist economy but rather an extension of the core belief that “the market was made to serve human beings; human beings were not made to serve the market.”

Judaism does not oppose the accumulation of wealth. From Abraham to King Solomon, the heroes of the Bible are often depicted as individuals with a great level of business acumen and monetary savviness. It is not G-d forbid prohibited to desire and work for a comfortable and affluent lifestyle.

However, what Judaism does not support is a vain pursuit of material wealth which overrides one’s spirituality, identity and self-duty to society. Yiddishkiet has always emphasized the fragility and fleetingness of the life we live. Despite the importance of material positions there is a futility in their never ending pursuit. What is truly of value and eternal is the kindness, compassion, community and family which we cultivate and foster in our lives.

A story is told about Jewish billionaire Edward Reichman who passed away in 2005. Upon his death, his children found out that he left two wills directing that one be opened immediately and that the second be opened 30 days after his funeral.

In his first will, Reichman requested his children bury him with his favourite pair of socks. Thus, in vain his children searched every available Jewish burial society which would accept their father’s precondition. Although his children pleaded with the various rabbinic authorities, their request was refused. Edward Reichman, the famous billionaire, was buried without his favourite socks.

30 days later, the second will was opened and it read something like this: “My dear children, by now you must have buried me without my socks. I wanted you to truly understand that a man can have billions of dollars, but in the end, he can’t even take along one pair of socks!”

This story depicts the internal message of the mitzvah of Jubilee. The commandment of Yovel teaches us we are not owners of the earth, rather minders.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Gabi