Opponents in debates on matters of public interest like to cite the Bible to confirm their views.
Ardent socialists, for example, have cheered this week’s sedra for its declaration of every 50th (or Jubilee) year a time when land returns to the original owners, thereby prohibiting large landed interests from owning real estate in perpetuity. Equally ardent capitalists note the high value placed on private ownership in the first place. The Bible measures the land’s worth by calculating the number of harvests to be realized before the Jubilee. Land purchased at the beginning of a 50-year cycle is worth more than the same land purchased just 10 years before its conclusion.
Yehudah Nachshoni, the collector of commentaries, responds that it is ridiculous to expect Torah to endorse either socialism or capitalism, both being “concepts derived from modernity.”
Torah provides a spiritual, not an economic, framework. The laws of the Jubilee year, says Maimonides, were given “to induce sympathy with our fellow human beings and promote the well-being of humanity.” Its essential claim is that all property belongs to God. We, the owners, also belong to God. Neither land nor people can be ravaged for personal gain.
In biblical times, ownership of land was crucial, so the Torah makes each of us a landholder. We may sell our land if absolutely necessary, but not all of it — at least some residue must be retained lest we end up indentured to others.
In reality, indentured servitude did occur. The entire Jewish story begins with our redemption from Egyptian slavery, that we might serve God and no one else. Italian commentator Sforno (1475-1550) concludes, therefore, that “we may acquire masters for ourselves in respect to any manner of work, but insofar as we are God’s servants, we have no power to sell ourselves into absolute servitude.” Our sedra is quite insistent in this regard: twice (25:42, 55) God proclaims, “You are my servants” — not (say the rabbis) in order to become “servants to other servants!” If we sell ourselves as a matter of economic survival, our masters acquire mere stewardship over us, until such time as we can revert to our original master, God.
Obviously, our new masters may not subjugate us through hard labor — farech, the same Hebrew word used to describe the work that taskmasters assigned the Israelites in Egypt. But the rabbis apply it to even the smallest details — like asking servants to do unnecessary work just to keep them busy or giving assignments with no end in sight, like field work “until I return,” since the worker has no idea when that will be.
These rules, moreover, apply not just to Jews; the Torah takes a universal turn in applying them to everyone within the jurisdiction: not just Jews but resident aliens as well.
Most important is the principle: All creation is God’s. And in God’s scheme, we are all intended to be redeemed from Egypt. Regardless of economic conditions, we may not be reduced to lives of indignity.