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D'var Torah: Behar

This parshah contains two great concepts of management of the land in an agricultural society and social justice: the concept of the sabbatical year and that of the jubilee year.

In regard to the jubilee year, I was taken by the statement in the notes on page 738 of Etz Hayim: “ the heart of this portion is the visionary concept of returning land to its original owner at the end of a 50-year cycle. This prevents the polarization of society into two classes: wealthy, powerful landowners on the one hand and permanently impoverished people on the other.”

There is extensive scholarship about the history of the jubilee year, including many calculations about when the count to the jubilee year started and whether it was before or after the exile. Some scholars argue that these chapters were written in the exilic or post exilic period, after Ezekiel. Others argue that they are part of the Mosaic Holiness Code and were written by the Priestly writers.

Also the length of the jubilee cycle continues to be of interest to modern scholarship, as does the question of the practicality of the legislation, and whether it was ever put into effect on a nationwide basis.

And I learned that the Samarians practiced the jubilee year until several hundred years ago and are now trying to calculate when they stopped so that they can resume the practice.

Well, I am not qualified to explain and debate the history of the passages or, for that matter, put them into the context of the biblical period or the practice of other nations and cultures of that time. So, with your indulgence, I will keep my remarks to the theological, ethical and social justice aspects of these passages.

Let me return to the notes in Etz Hayim. The goal of the jubilee was to prevent permanent impoverishment in an agrarian society. Recognizing that farmers would go into permanent debt by selling their land, the jubilee year gave everyone an opportunity to start all over again. Quoting again, “Behind this plan or two religious assumptions. Because all the earth and all the inhabitants belong to God, human beings cannot possess either the land or the people in perpetuity. And no human being should be condemned to permanent servitude.”

And finally, Rabbi Kook taught that the purpose of the jubilee was spiritual, not just economic. It came to restore the sense of unity that once prevailed in Israel and to restore self-respect to the person who had sunk into poverty and a sense of failure. Let me add to the background for our discussion verses five and six regarding sabbatical years: “You shall not reap the overgrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce....”

The interpretation reads: “Sometimes the wealthy don’t believe that poor people are actually suffering, suspecting that they are just too lazy to provide for themselves. Let the wealthy undergo the experience of not knowing whether there will be enough to eat, and their attitude will change.” While I don’t like the tone of this interpretation, I do agree that we live in a world of haves and have-nots and the haves don’t always see or understand the experience of the have nots. But the challenge in the passage and in the interpretation is to find ways to share wealth and to assure that all people have the basic necessities of life.

And now I would like to connect these passages to thoughts about reducing poverty and suffering in the world thereby reducing the current refugee crisis and the attitudes about immigration into the U.S. I have just been reading Rabbi Michael Lerner’s comments about U.S. immigration policy. This was in preparation for a discussion on the situation of refugees and immigrants in the Lansing area as part of the work of the local chapter of the network of spiritual progressives. It was also to prepare for developing our congregational theme for the coming year.

In an editorial in Tikkun magazine, Rabbi Lerner reflects on reasons that some resist taking in immigrants and refugees in the U.S. He says there are those who believe that we, in the U.S., “...are being overrun by others seeking our wealth and taking our jobs.” He says that while such a belief is not grounded in fact, yet it still has some logic to it. For some their unemployment or poverty is more poignant because of the presence of “foreigners” who are working. And we see these feelings not just in the U.S., but in Europe as well, as they deal with the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.

Rabbi Lerner offers two responses to this situation. Each is drawn upon the ethical principles in our Torah reading of today. Drawing from the concept in the sabbatical year of sharing with the poor, Lerner proposes a global Marshall Plan that would have the United States provide 1 to 2% of our GDP (think the corner of our fields or what our fields produce in a sabbatical year) for the next twenty years to poor nations. The goal is to end global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education and inadequate healthcare. And by ending these scourges on the human condition, he hopes to reduce the pressure on people to flee their homelands and emigrate to other countries.

A resolution to create such a GMP has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives each session since the 110th Congress (2007–2008). It is House Resolution 87 in this Congress and has been referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. It is co-sponsored by Michigan Congressman John Conyers.

I don’t think there is much likelihood that it will get much traction, but, like most bills or resolutions, it requires public pressure to get legislators to pay attention to them. We know that some major programs and laws in our nation’s history – such as amendments to our constitution, social security, medicare, civil rights laws, and so on – started from ideas and movements and had to overcome inertia and opposition before they were passed.

And Lerner makes these comments about the Jubilee year: “This is another way of saying the land doesn't belong to us and we have an obligation to share what we have.... Spiritual people need to teach this message: we humans don't have a right to any part of the earth, but only an obligation to care for it and share it with all other human beings, with animals and plant life.”

Lerner goes on to say that we, in this country, have the capacity to accept and integrate many refugees and immigrants into our society. In fact, his point is that we, as spiritual people, have the obligation to share what we have with others. After all, we should welcome the stranger, “because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

I would just note an interesting statistic that I saw in a recent article about refugees to Lansing. Since 2002 there have been 7,000 refugees settled in Lansing. The current population of Lansing is 120,000. This means that about 6% of our population are refugees. This is not unique to Lansing. I’ve seen stories about communities with declining populations that welcome refugees.

So these are the questions, challenges and responses that today’s parshah bring to my mind. Some of these responses may seem unrealistic; some may seem like utopian ideals. But here in our sanctuary where we read from the seminal work that is the spiritual and religious foundation of our people, it seems appropriate to discuss the utopian ideals in our origins and to wrestle with how to follow them in our modern world.

Ending thought

I don't know how a jubilee year would work in a capitalist society. The closest I’ve ever come to experience the sense of shared wealth and shared land was when our family lived on a kibbutz in 1974. I am aware that many kibbutzim have given up some of their most pure socialist principles and some don’t even exist any longer. And I am aware that a kibbutz is basically a small village and that its principles of organization and management would be difficult if not impossible to administer on a large scale. But having had a taste of a Jewish socialist community, I have always dreamed that this was a model for a wholesome, peaceful and fulfilling life and society.

—David Wiener
August 2017

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