Debt Release is an ancient concept

Parsaht Behar

Leviticus 25:1-26:2

This week’s Torah portion Behar is timely indeed.  Its focus is on the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year.  With the European elections that have taken place and the reaction to the growing debts and austerity programs to fix that debt, we are reminded that our ancestors had a regular and radical way to fix growing indebtedness.   That fix was the Jubilee year.  Every 50 years all debts were wiped out.  Slaves were freed and property (in the land of Israel) returned to its original owner!

 Debt forgiveness is the ancient prescription to growing and out of control indebtedness. Every 50 years the ram’s horn was sounded (this followed a sabbatical year) and the Yovel or Jubilee year was proclaimed.  Three features characterized a Yovel year: 1) the land must lie fallow; 2) land property that has been sold reverts to its original owners from the time of the conquest of Israel; 3) Hebrew slaves are to receive their freedom.  This is how the Yovel year was observed.  This release was a forgiveness of debt either on land or the indebtedness of slaves.   In one blast of the Shofar-debts were wiped out and society was reset for another fifty years.  

 Countries do this all the time for one another-debt forgiveness is a regular part of our foreign policy. 

Ancient societies including the Babylonians and Sumerians and even Rome engaged in forgiving monetary debts. 

 For the ancient Israelites this was a holy act. It was a reminder that all we have really belongs to God.

The land is God’s and God has “lent” us use of it. (Lev. 25:23).  It is this idea that is stated explicitly in our Torah portion this week!

Imagine if every 50 years your own indebtedness was gone.  Student loans, mortgages, car payments with the blast of the Shofar no longer existed. 

But that ancient society was also built on some different values than we have at work today.  This week’s torah portion reminds us that we cannot charge interest to a fellow Israelite precisely because she is our family.  Further if one of our family or tribe is in trouble financially then we have the obligation and responsibility to help bail them out!

 We are supposed to care for each other in the deepest ways.  We cannot turn a blind eye.

 In the biblical world view-there was to be neither overwhelming wealth nor deep poverty.  Sadly the gap grows larger in our own day and time between the rich and the poor.  Board room executives squeeze the workers dry and the way we do business makes indebtedness a way of life for the masses. Middle class?  Hardly anyone left there as most people are left behind.  Even a college degree doesn’t guarantee a job any more. 

 The Jubilee year was proclaimed throughout the land to even the odds.

 Perhaps it is an idea whose time has come round again.


The Sanctity of the land

Parshat Behar/Yom Haatzmaut

Leviticus 25:1-26:2

Parshat Behar teaches us about the cycles of the land. Specifically it teaches about the sabbatical year and the Jubilee year.  These are cycles of land rest every seventh year and every fiftieth year.  Just like Shabbat each week, the seventh day, when human beings and work animals are to rest, every seventh year the land is to have its own Sabbath.   It cannot be worked to produce grain or vegetables or fruit and must lie fallow.

Every fiftieth year, or Jubilee year the ultimate land redistribution plan is put in place and holdings revert back to original owners, according to the Biblical text.  “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me “(Lev. 25:23). We are not to get caught up in what we own because ultimately it will revert back to original owners of the land and every seventh year we won’t be able to even till the land gaining wealth from what it produces.

The Torah is trying to teach us that the land ultimately belongs not to human beings even the original owners but to God.  The Torah is dismissive of the idea of private ownership!  This even extends to the notion of slavery in the Bible.  For every Jubilee year all slaves were released! We are lent our property according to the Bible.  We cannot measure ourselves, or define our identity through our holdings of property.

The land of Eretz Yisrael is sacred in its own right.  The holiness of the land of Israel and our connection to it has always remained an important part of Judaism.  Our focus on the land of Zion as the fulfillment of God’s promise to our ancestors is actualized in Israel reborn.  This connection of our identity to God’s holy land was never lost. It was part of our prayers, our theology and our focus as a people to return to the land.

This week we observe the modern State of Israel’s 63rd birthday.  Israel and its people are at an important crossroads in its own young life.  Israel is still threatened by hostile neighbors, like Iran and Syria.  Yet, despite these threats Israel and Israelis thrive. It is a vibrant democratic Jewish state unlike any other place in the world.

The forces within Israel on the left and the right of the political spectrum exert great pressure. Israel is trying to define itself in the face of both outer threats and inner ones. There are policies of the government that seem so difficult to understand when we live in the relative safety of America. And in a country like the United States where there is a separation of synagogue and state.  It is hard to understand that Reform and Conservative Judaism don’t have full equality in Israel.  Even as many Israelis are completely secular.

But the identity of Israel is more than just an idea. It is tied to this sacred holy land.  And our Jewish identities are tied to this holy land. That makes all of us Zionists.  And while we might disagree with a particular policy of a standing government in Israel (Just as we might here in the U.S. disagree with the Congress or the President) our connection to the Land of Israel must remain strong.

So Happy Birthday Israel.