Advocates of modern political and economic positions often look to the Bible for religious support — as if revelation some thousands of years ago should have anticipated the dilemmas of every age to come. This week’s portion, with its compelling laws of ownership, have therefore been mined by liberals and conservatives alike to defend their views.
Ardent socialists, for example, have cheered the idea of declaring every fiftieth (or Jubilee) year a time when land devolves upon 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 itself measures land value against the number of harvests to be realized before the Jubilee, thus recognizing due market value to guide investors. Land purchased in the first year of a fifty-year cycle is worth more than the same land purchased, say, just ten years before that cycle’s end.
To all of this, the modern collector of commentaries, Yehudah Nachshoni, reminds us that both socialism or capitalism are “concepts derived from modernity.” Readers can find support for both throughout the Torah, which, after all, was given long before Adam Smith or Karl Marx.
Not that Torah is irrelevant to modern concerns; but what it provides is a spiritual framework, not an economic one. Maimonides rightly observes (in his Guide, 3:38) that the laws of sabbatical and Jubilee years were given “to imply sympathy with our fellow human beings and to promote the wellbeing of humanity.”
Its essential claim is that all property — land first and foremost in an agrarian economy — belongs to God. By extension, we, the owners, also belong to God. Neither land nor people can be ravaged for personal gain.
To be sure, ecological concerns are inherent in laws that prevent abuse of land; the land is God’s after all, not ours, in the long run. But overall, the Torah’s concerns here are with issues of people, who are, as it were, tenants gifted with stewardship over goods that predated our coming into the world and will be here long after we die.
In biblical times, ownership of at least some plot 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 of property must be retained lest the owner become completely destitute and become indentured to some other person.
In reality, indentured servitude did occur, of course — Torah’s regulations here are ideals, after all, and as such, were as subject to economic conditions as we are. So rabbinic regulation turned to conditions of indenture, as a consequence of the spiritual principle that we too belong to God — no less than the land does.
If we sell ourselves, in effect, as a matter of economic survival, our masters must recognize that they now have mere stewardship over us, until such time as we can revert to our original master, God. The entire Jewish story begins with the proclamation that God redeemed us from Egyptian slavery and says, “You are my servants” — not (say the rabbis) so that you should become “servants to other servants.” We may indeed, therefore, 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.”
Most obviously, our new masters may not make total serfs of us, subjugating us through hard labor — farekh, in Hebrew, the same 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. We also may not give our workers assignments with no end in sight, like doing 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 has no modern concepts as clear cut as absolute particularism versus universalism; it had no concept of social rules that might apply to people completely beyond the reach of Jewish governmental structures. But it takes a universal turn when it applies these rules of common decency to everyone within the jurisdiction of Jews: not just Jews but resident aliens as well.
The Torah even worries about the spiritual condition of the master. Modern Orthodox master Isaac Breuer lived at the height of rampant capitalism and worried about the wealthy who deny that God owns everything and even live as if they too do not own everything because what they own actually owns them!
More important than the precise examples is the principle: the earth is God’s; all creation is God’s; we are part of creation; we are God’s as well. And in God’s scheme, we are all intended to get beyond Egyptian servitude so that regardless of economic conditions, we may not be reduced to have lives of indignity.