Parashat Behar deals with the economic laws regulating the Torah’s utopian agrarian society. The Torah tells us that once they had settled in their land, the Israelites were to plant, harvest, and store the produce of their fields for six years. During the seventh year of the cycle, the shemittah (sabbatical) year, they were not to plant or harvest or store produce that had grown on its own. However, everyone was free to take and eat whatever grew wild as needed.
After seven of these seven-year cycles, the 50th year was designated the yovel (jubilee). Not only was farming prohibited, but all Israelite slaves were to be freed. In addition, any land sold during the previous 49 years was to revert to its original owner. In other words, land was never actually sold, but only leased until the next yovel.
Moreover, while it is not mentioned in this parashah, we learn in Sefer D’varim (Book of Deuteronomy) that the laws of shemittah called for the cancellation of all debts owed by one Jew to another. Additional provisions called for people to help impoverished relatives buy back their land holdings before the next yovel and to lend money to those in need at no interest.
Through these laws, all Israelites, whether landowners or paupers or religious functionaries, would be provided for, and wealth in the form of land would not accumulate in the hands of only a few. The members of society would support each other in good times and bad, so that all could live in security and peace.
Of course, it is with good reason that I called this vision utopian. We have no evidence that such an arrangement ever existed and ample evidence that if it ever existed, it didn’t last long.
Still, as with many of the Torah’s laws, our ability to learn important lessons from the laws of shemittah has little to do with their practical application. The rabbis give particular attention to this verse: “When you sell property to your neighbor or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong [defraud] one another [literally, each his brother].”
One commentary, whose author I was unable to identify, teaches: “Even one who is your brother in guile. Sometimes, both the buyer and seller are frauds: the seller in terms of selling inferior or improperly measured merchandise and the buyer in terms of the use of counterfeit money. Even in a case where both are unscrupulous, the Torah states that a person is not permitted to cheat another.”
Two wrongs don’t make a right. Or, in contemporary terms, you may not pad your insurance claim just because your premiums are outrageously high.
I admit I particularly enjoy the more cynical insights of earlier generations of rabbis. An early-20th-century commentary says this about the verse, “You shall hallow the 50th year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.”
Generally, when a person loses his wealth, his family and friends distance themselves from him and ignore him. If he regains his wealth, the circle of relatives and friends who are willing to have him among them grows. Thus the Torah tells us that when a person returns to his possessions, it means that he will return to his family.
May you be blessed with a loving family and true friends.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.