This week's Torah reading is Behar-Bechukkotay, a double reading for non-leap years. The Torah reading is Leviticus chapter 25 through to the end of Leviticus. The Haftarah, the reading from the Prophets, is Jeremiah 16:19 to 17:14.
Chapter 25 of Leviticus is one of the most remarkable and progressive readings from the Bible. But, to set the stage, let me introduce this D'var Torah with the words of Congressman William Jennings Bryan, spoken on the floor of the House of Representatives on August 16, 1893:
On the one side stand the corporate interests of the United States, the moneyed interests, aggregated wealth and capital, imperious, arrogant, compassionless. On the other side stand an unnumbered throng, those who gave to the Democratic Party a name and for whom it has assumed to speak. Work-worn and dust-begrimed, they make their mute appeal, and too often find their cry for help beat in vain against the outer walls, while others, less deserving, gain ready access to legislative halls.When Congressman Bryan rose in the House of Representatives to deliver this speech, we were in the heart of what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age, the age of the Robber Barons, the age when most of the nation's wealth was concentrated into the hands of a few wealthy people - the J. P. Morgans, the Jay Goulds, the John D. Rockefellers, the Andrew Mellons, while the great masses of people sweated for mere pennies 12 and 14 hours a day, many workers and their children suffered from malnutrition and early deaths from diseases such as tuberculosis, as they were crowded into lightless tenements, while their attempts to form unions were supressed. The nation's leading politicians, Bryan aside, said it was all for the best, God favored the wealthy, and government could and should do nothing to alter the natural scheme of things.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Beginning with the reforms of the Progressive Era and spurred by the New Deal, the economic life of the average American gradually improved, but since about 1980 the real incomes of most American have stagnated or gotten worse, while the wealthiest have increased their wealth almost exponentially. A recent article in Time Magazine reported:
It is sadly all too easy to find statistics that show the rich are getting richer while the middle class and poor are not. A September study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington noted that the median annual earnings of a full-time, male worker in the U.S. in 2011, at $48,202, were smaller than in 1973. Between 1983 and 2010, 74% of the gains in wealth in the U.S. went to the richest 5%, while the bottom 60% suffered a decline, the EPI calculated.And what have our brave Congressmen done about this? They have imposed mandatory budget cutbacks, slashing hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to Meals on Wheels, with the result that this year Meals on Wheels will serve needy seniors somewhere between 4 million fewer meals - that's according to White House estimates, to 19 million fewer meals - that's according the the National Meals on Wheels Association. And starting this May, the unemployed will see their unemployment benefits slashed by an average of 11 percent, thanks to sequestration. But don't worry, these congressman will be now be able to fly home to their gerrymandered districts without delays, at the cost of slashing most airport construction and maintenance projects. But the Congressmen can't be delayed at the airports, they are too busy flying home, where they spend most days of the year being paid for not working.
In contrast to the dire political and economic system of William Jennings Bryan's day, and its encore that we are experiencing today, we have this week's Torah reading, specifically chapter 25 of Leviticus. Every 50 years all land is restored to its original owners, and those who have sold themselves into a form of slavery to pay off their debts are freed. Those buying and selling land do not buy and sell in perpetuity, rather, the land is merely leased until the next Jubilee year, with the price adjusted accordingly. We are commanded to lend money to the needy to provide for their basic necessities, and not to charge them interest. These debts are forgiven every seven years.
For the rabbis, Chapter 25 of Leviticus proclaimed the obligation of the community to care for the needy, not just to ensure their survival but to do what is necessary so the needy can again become productive members of society. In Shabbat 63a we read:
Rabbi Abba said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (Resh Lakish), "He who lends to the poor is better than he who gives them charity. And he who sets them up in a business so they can earn a living is greater than all."And, in Baba Batra 9b:
Rabbi Eleazar says, "A person who gives charity in secret is greater than Moses our Teacher."And in Leviticus Rabbah's commentary on Behar, we are warned that:
God will punish those who have money who ask the needy, "Why don't you go out and find a job, make some money, and put your own bread on your table?" Or who say, "Look at those hips, look at those legs, look at that fat body. This person can work. Let him work and take care of himself." These people who mock the poor will bring evil on themselves, because they do not honor others who likewise are made in the image of God.And from Gittin 61a:
Our rabbis have taught, "We support the poor of the gentiles along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the gentiles along with the sick of Israel, and bury the poor of the gentiles along with the dead of Israel, in the interests of peace.Skipping ahead 1,700 or so years, the late Israeli Rabbi Pinchas Peli, whose column "Torah Today" before his death in 1989 in the Jerusalem Post was widely read, wrote in one of his columns that today parshat's text on the sabbatical year for the land and the Jubilee year was
One of the most advanced social reforms in history. They protect society against the evils of feudalism and totalitarianism, assuring an inherent "liberty to all the inhabitants of the land" and the right of each individual to return to his home and to his family.May the words of the Torah, specifically chapter 25 of Leviticus, and the words therein inscribed on the Liberty Bell, inspire us to make this land, and this planet, a better place. Shabbat Shalom.