One of this week’s Torah portions, Behar has the laws of Shemittah, the Sabbatical year. Every seven years the Israelites were to cease farming their land and let it be as is. No planting, no ploughing, no harvesting etc. Eretz Yisrael gets its own Shabbat, so to speak.
After seven cycles of Shemittah, there are even more far-reaching laws. Not only are there the regular Shemittah, seventh-year restrictions, but the 50th year, the Yovel or Jubilee year also kicks in with the selfsame Shemittah restrictions and then some. Part of the Yovel package was that any tribal land that was sold reverts back to its original owner. In essence you didn’t purchase land forever but on a 49 year lease – max. So for instance, if you bought a piece of land in the 20th year of the Yovel cycle, you were basically leasing it for another 29 years. If you purchased it in the 40th year, then another 9, and so on.
Consistent with this theme of a financial reset is that a Jewish slave would win his freedom in the Yovel year. The whole notion of slavery is a separate discussion but suffice it to say he was in this position because he became totally destitute and had only his ability to work as his sole capital. And that he did until he paid off his debt. Comes along the Yovel year and even if he still owes money to his master, that debt is annulled and he goes free.
And one more law of Shemittah – all loans were forgiven. Yeah, this too gets a bit complicated, especially in our day and age when our economy is so driven by borrowed money. But any small loan is forgiven during the Shemittah year – not too dissimilar to our present day government PPP “loans” that were made with the understanding that many will likely be forgiven.
When you consider these mitzvot and laws that occur during the Shemittah/Yovel cycle, there is a clear theme that emerges in the Torah’s take on economics. And that is we are trying to level the financial playing field at certain times and instances. In the Shemittah/Yoval system no one can amass tons of land. The less fortunate – be it the extreme case where someone becomes a slave, or even when someone simply needs a loan – are given a break. There is a bit of a financial redistribution going on.
In our lifetime we are witness to two main competing views of how societies ought to conduct themselves regarding capital, money, finance and gain. Communism and its cousin Socialism want us all to share and be as much alike as possible. It’s the Robin Hood philosophy of taking from the rich and giving it to the poor. Depending on where you live, various governments work at implementing this. Canada has a much higher tax rate than the United States, but healthcare and other social services are free or much cheaper such as attending University. Similar is the cradle-to-grave system in Europe which also leads to higher taxes.
There is an obvious flaw in Communism and its lesser form of Socialism. It kills incentive, creativity and the willingness to take a risk to advance one’s position. If I cannot reap the fruits of my initiative, labour and hard work, why would I bust my behind to work so hard? This is the frustration we encounter when we deal with the bureaucrat behind the desk who cannot even look up at us and has zero incentive to work harder or please the customer; sauntering through his or her job at a leisurely pace until the 5 o’clock whistle blows. They have no skin in the game and hence there is no motivation to work harder, more creatively or longer. Now imagine a whole work force like that. That’s why Communism always fails.
On the other hand a completely free market has its problems as well. As Rabbi Sacks zt”l has pointed out: Market economics is good at the creation of wealth but bad at its distribution. Whatever the starting point, inequalities emerge early on between the more and less successful, and they become more pronounced over time. Economic inequality leads to inequality of power, and the result is often the abuse of the weak by the strong.
Clearly neither system is perfect. So what’s the solution? Where is the happy medium? I would suggest that it lies in one small phrase that the Torah uses to begin three different paragraphs in our parsha about three different scenarios of financial difficulty. Each begins with the simple poignant phrase of,כי ימוךאחיך – if and when your brother will become impoverished… As it describes the mitzvot of helping another, the Torah stresses that the needy person is your brother. Do not regard the less fortunate as some nameless and faceless loser. “Well, if he would have only worked harder…” is not our view of the less financially fortunate. No, see him or her as your brother or sister.
If it was your immediate family member who was facing difficult financial straits, you wouldn’t just give them a buck and be on your way. You would (I hope) show a little more care and concern and make an extra effort – as much as humanely and financially possible – to get him or her back on their feet. This need for empathy is the initial sentiment that any society must have if they wish to have greater economic equity. I have to care enough about the other and regard him or her as a brother or sister.
The Jewish view of money and capital lies somewhere in the middle of Socialism and Free Market. On the one hand I need to feel motivated that my efforts will reap rewards. But on the other, I cannot have a “tough luck, Bud – can’t help you out” attitude to those who are less fortunate. Through the principles of Shemittah and Yovel, the Torah demands that we need to financially reset periodically in addition to my volunteer charitable giving. And that will only happen when we are willing to see each other as brothers and sisters.
This concern for the needy has been the hallmark of the Jewish people throughout the ages. We take care of each other. We feel the plight of another Jew, no matter how far away geographically they may be. We look out for one another since we know we are one big family. If someone is in need, financially or otherwise, we come through.
And this trait of our people has extended and expanded to helping not only our co-religionist, but people all over the world, no matter what religion or region they may live. How often do we read of Israel being one of the first nations to offer assistance to others during tragedies, as it recently did during the earthquakes that struck Turkey?
So work hard, invest wisely, make a boat-load of cash but always remember your brothers and sisters who may not be in the same position as you. Never forget them. If we don’t forget them, rest assured that God will never forget us. What goes around comes around. It will come back to you in spades and in the end you will find that giving is an amazing investment as well.
And remember to be kind
When the pain of another will serve you to remind
That there are those who feel themselves exiled
On whom the fortune never smiled
And upon whose lives the heartache has been piled…
Take good care of each other