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Behar Sinai

04/06/2015 06:58:00 AM


Behar Sinai
Leviticus 25:1 - 26:2
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

"We don't know who discovered water," Einstein observed, but we do know one thing: "It wasn't a fish!" Why not a fish? Because a fish -- born into water, living, eating, breathing water -- is never sufficiently separated from water to become aware of its presence. The unnoticed condition of its existence, no fish will ever know water. And as for us, what surrounds and contains us to which we are unaware? What is the ubiquitous medium of our existence?

I asked my children where they wanted to spend a few free hours one Sunday afternoon. "Let's go to the mall!" Not the beach? the mountains? the park? No, they insist on the mall. Arriving mid-afternoon, we find thousands of people. Welcome to the New American Neighborhood, replete with Bloomingdales, The Gap, and Victoria Secrets! No longer just a place to shop, the mall is where they grow up, where they date and fall in love, where families gather, where they grow old together. What does this do, in the long term, I wonder, to the souls of our children?

"You are what you eat" concluded the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. It is economics -- our relationship to the means of production and the opportunities for consumption -- that determines our values, attitudes and identity. Out of our awareness, the marketplace saturates us. It tells us what's important, what's valuable, what's real. It infiltrates our perceptions of others. It even penetrates the self -- telling us who we are and what we're worth. Ask any man to introduce himself. Listen carefully for the answer. See if he begins by telling you that he's married 18 years, the father of three, a huge opera fan, a committed gardener, a volunteer for Big Brothers. Chances are, he'll tell you his occupation: "I'm an attorney, a physician, a stock broker." This is his identity. Homo economicus -- he has become what he "does for a living."

The Torah in this week's portion, Behar Sinai, worries about the impact of the economic struggle on the lives of human beings. It is concerned for the poverty of the body. Four times in this brief portion we find the words "Should your brother sink into poverty..." The poor must be supported. Money lent in assistance may not accrue interest. Lands auctioned to meet debt must be redeemed and kept in the family. And most radical of all: To prevent the accretion of systemic poverty, generation after generation, a Jubilee is proclaimed every fifty years. In the year of Jubilee, all properties return to their ancestral owners, all debts and contracts of indentured servitude are canceled, and all economic conditions return to a starting point of equality.

The Torah is concerned about the poverty of the land for in the pursuit of wealth, the land itself may be abused, over worked and worn out. And so it commands, "in the seventh year, the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land."

But most importantly, the Torah is concerned for the poverty of the human soul. This seventh year, the "sabbath of the Lord" is not only for the land, but for those who work the land. It removes the person from the economic struggle proscribing agriculture and all other efforts toward making a livelihood. An astonishing proposal: A seventh year of fallow hands but fertile mind to rediscover who I am when I'm not at work, not struggling to make it, not a commodity among commodities on the marketplace. A full year separated from the endless project of accumulating wealth, to do what? What would you do? Travel? Learn? Do art? Master the viola? Volunteer? Get to know your kids? Every seven years a chance to shed the skin of the attorney, the accountant, the executive, and find the human being beneath.

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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780