Context is everything

Context is everything

Behar | Leviticus 25:1-26:2

The Torah is a religious document; it comes to teach us about our duties and relationships to God and our fellow human beings, about how to live, and how to pursue “the right and good in the eyes of God.” Moreover, for Jews, the Torah can be read only through the eyes of the rabbis. 

The Torah is not a political manifesto or a public policy manual. Yet it’s not uncommon to see protestors holding signs saying, “Thou shalt not kill,” often with the citation of chapter and verse. They may be right-wingers protesting at an abortion clinic or left-wingers protesting against the death penalty, but in either case, they’ve got it wrong. First, there is no such verse as “Thou shalt not kill”; the Torah says, “Do not murder” — clearly not the same thing. Moreover, the Torah teaches that execution is appropriate punishment for some transgressions, particularly murder, and one who injures a pregnant woman and causes her to miscarry has committed a tort punishable by a fine, not murder.

Context is everything. You can’t use the Torah to prove an argument that explicitly contradicts the Torah. What this means is understanding the Torah’s commandments and exhortations within the context of the all-encompassing religious worldview that we learn from the Torah itself and the commentary of its rabbinic interpreters. 

The context for all the Torah’s laws is a world with God at the center. And that is particularly true when we look at the economic legislation in parshat Behar. The Torah teaches that once they had settled in the land, the Israelites were to plant, harvest, and store the produce of their fields for six years. During the seventh year, the shmita, they were not to engage in farming, but everyone was free to eat what grew on its own as needed.

After seven of these seven-year cycles, the 50th year was the Yovel (Jubilee). Not only was farming prohibited, but all Israelite slaves — actually, indentured servants — were to be freed, and any land sold during the previous 49 years was to revert to its original owners.

We don’t know if this system was ever actually practiced, but the Torah clearly has something to teach us about economic life, about wealth, ownership, and justice.

Dr. Meir Tamari, former chief economist of the Bank of Israel, wrote:

One can find in this legal requirement many social explanations. For example, one explanation may be that the object of the Jubilee was to prevent the accumulation of land by a small, monopolistic group of people. A rereading of both the biblical text and the rabbinic authorities, however, shows very clearly that its prime object is to demonstrate Divine ownership…. The Divine origin of wealth is the central principle of Jewish economic philosophy. All wealth belongs to God, who has given it temporarily to man, on a basis of stewardship, for his physical well-being.

Context is everything, and God is at the center. If you are blessed with wealth, you have a responsibility to care for the poor. How you do it is up to you — but never forget, God is watching.

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