This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elie Lerea
As active participants in a capitalist world, it is not uncommon for us to be filled with a sense of economic dissonance when we read the Torah’s economic legislation. Capitalism assumes that an incentive-based, market economy will result in the most efficient innovation and overall production. Yet much of what is expected of the people of Israel in Parashat BeHar seems to ignore these insights. Does the Torah have a different vision of human nature than capitalism? Or does it sacrifice innovation and efficiency to other priorities?
For example: Rather than incentivizing innovation and production during every agriculture year, the Torah commands that every seventh year “ושבתה הארץ שבת לה׳” (Lev. 25:2). Rather than working one’s land in the sixth year of the seven-year Sabbatical cycle with the motivation of personal profit, the people of Israel are expected to erase that motivation from their minds by offering up all of the seventh year’s produce “לך ולעבדך ולאמתך ולשכירך ולתושבך הגרים עמך” (Lev. 25:6).
The Torah also mandates redistribution of wealth. Every fiftieth year of the cycle, family fields are returned to their original owners as “ושבתם איש אל אחזתו ואיש אל משפחתו תשובו” (Lev. 25:10). Instead of incentivizing production by rewarding the successful individual, the Torah rewards all from the production of some. Instead of allowing success to endure, thus stimulating competition and active incentive to increase the value of one’s own property, the Torah redistributes wealth. Finally, instead of establishing a free market, stimulating efficiency through economically profitable decisions, the Torah calls for all family members to feel responsible for The Other by redeeming the field of their kin even if it is not the most lucrative investment for their own personal success.
To claim that we must choose between the absolutes of a modern capitalist system and the Torah’s mutually supportive society would belittle the complexity and nuance of economic societies and the many factors that play into their success or demise. That being said, when confronted with something foreign to our sensibilities and assumptions, it is always important to consider the core advantages of such foreignness in order to be better able to think with more nuance moving forward.
This week’s haftorah beautifully captures the undiluted value and advantage of the mutually supportive societies described in Parashat BeHar.
Jeremiah relays the experience of G-d revealing G-d’s self to him, mandating that he redeem the field of his cash-poor cousin. This seems quite parallel to the law of our Parashah, despite a slight nuance in that he redeems the field directly from his family member. However, after a description of the transaction that occurred between the two members, the chapter concludes with what makes clear an entirely different, broader context to the sale, highlighting the Torah’s message about supportive economies. After concluding the purchase, Jeremiah concludes with the following:
“כי כה אמר ה׳ צבאות אלקי ישראל עוד יקנו בתים ושדות וכרמים בארץ הזאת”
“And thus said the Lord of Hosts the G-d of Israel: homes, fields, and vinyards will again be bought in this land” (Jer. 32:15)
Jeremiah is purchasing this field with a vivid image of what the horizon looks like for Israel: they are about to be exiled. And thus, in terms of his own economic interests, there would be no purchase more foolish than to buy local real-estate. However, Jeremiah acts and articulates his actions with a broader sensibility in mind. Jeremiah understands that transcending his own interest will allow for a greater sensitivity to The Other, in this case his cousins, but in a broader sense, each individual in his vicinity and ultimately the broader nation of Israel.
Immediately following his call of hope that the people will yet return to the Land of Israel, Jeremiah continues with a prayer to G-d, delineating G-d’s relationship with the world, G-d’s people’s sin, and, ultimately, a proclamation of G-d’s ultimate delivery of his people. Although the liturgy of the Haftorah cuts off in the middle of the chapter, the custom is to finish with Jeremiah 32:27, with G-d’s proclamation of dominion over the world: “הנה אני ה׳ אלקי כל בשר הממני יפלא כל דבר.” This conclusion connects Jeremiah’s willingness to come to the financial aid of his cousin with what is for him a nonsensical economic purchase with his broader ability to sense G-d in the world and look forward to the eventual return of Israel to its land. It is perhaps this, more widely scoped message that the Parashah, along with its Haftorah, is trying to convey: cultivating a heightened awareness of the people in one’s immediate surroundings is a prerequisite for developing a deep sense of hope in a better world and G-d’s ultimate presence in it. Jeremiah’s ability to tap into the needs around him (at his own personal expense, literally) inspires him to look beyond his own experience and articulate G-d’s dominion and future redemption.
Thinking back to the economic tensions the Torah poses to capitalism, without choosing one or the other, thinking this way about the Parashah can hopefully help deepen our continual awareness of what is gained and lost in every ideology and model. In this case, it is my hope that keeping the Torah in mind will allow us to always consider the profound benefit of what it means to live in an economically supportive way, stimulating heightened attentiveness to our most immediate circles and beyond.
Elie Lerea (SBM 2016) is currently learning in the Kollel at Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa.