From Them, There and Then to Us, Here and Now
Torah is a living ethical will, a legacy that has been kept alive across the globe for thousands of years by multitudes of generations; a legacy that, whether we are aware of it or not, inspires our way of life, collectively and individually, to this day. This is so because, much as we have advanced technologically since the days of ancient Israel, we are still dealing with many of the same social justice imbalances. This is particularly true for today’s parshah, Behar.
I invite you to join me on a journey from Them, There and Then to Us, Here and Now. Behar, opens with the words:
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-משֶׁה, בְַּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר.
“And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying.”
These words are followed by a template for building justice, freedom and human dignity into the socioeconomic structure of the ancient Israelite society. Where did this template originate? “And the Lord spoke to Moses.” The Lord signifies a depth of vision we can call God or HaShem, Adonai or Shechinah, Ein Sof or The Source of All Existence, The Collective Unconscious or An Aspect of Being Human that can conceive and communicate an aspirational vision. To the degree that an ancient template for justice, freedom, and human dignity can still inspire us, it is a living legacy and a blessing successfully transmitted from them, there and then to us, here and now.
The title of today’s parshah, Behar, meaning “on the mountain,” tells us that because these teachings come from Mount Sinai, they are among the most holy at the heart of Judaism. They were meant to inspire the Israelites toward a radical innovation to their anticipated social order and they can still inspire us today. Behar introduces concrete methods for correcting for the inevitable inequalities that are part of all free market economies. It is a plan for the ancient Israelites to build social justice into their long-term calendars by periodically letting the land lie fallow, liberating slaves, releasing debt, and restoring ancestral lands. Rabbi Jonathon Sachs views the innovations in Behar as an attempt to combine the best of free market laissez-faire individualism, the essence of capitalism, with periodic socialist corrections, huge doses of Common Good collectivism. The challenge of balancing the benefits of capitalism with those of socialism is a perennial challenge, central to all social structures.
God instructs the Israelites, through Moses, that they will not own the very land that they had been promised throughout the story of Exodus. Like them, the land is part of God’s Creation, and belongs to its Creator, The Source of All Existence. As such, the land also deserves to have a Shmittah, a Sabbath, to lie fallow every seventh year, no seeds to be sown, no vines to be pruned. The overarching idea is that the land is alive and is not to be exploited and enslaved.
On the surface, undeniable truths about the earth’s vulnerabilities appear to be self-evident. But these truths are clearly elusive. Much as we strive not to, we continue to exploit the earth’s generosity, and with ever greater efficiency. Now, we are faced with Global Warming. The latest biodiversity report informs us that plant and animal species are disappearing at a rate faster than ever before in recorded history. Yes, the Earth is alive and it is at a crisis point. We have been exploiting it for so long and with such abandon that, more than ever before, it does need a rest, a Shmittah, and our protection. In this era of growing nationalism, a Shmittah-inspired plan would look like the Global Deal for Nature. In our own country, Shmittah consciousness would support the Green New Deal.
I found it puzzling that Behar asserts the importance of protecting the land from exploitation before it asserts that the people who inhabit the land, the Israelites themselves, were not to exploit each other. It helped to remember that, in an agrarian society, it is the productivity of the land that determines who gets rich and who loses everything, including their freedom, and becomes vulnerable to exploitation. It makes sense that the exploitation of land should preceed the exploitation of people.
In agrarian civilizations preceding that of the Israelites, slavery was a permanent state of identity, a caste system passed from one generation to the next. That was as true for the slavery from which the Israelites had been liberated in the story of Exodus as it was for the slavery that we infamously and shamefully practiced here in our democratic United States. To prevent such institutionalized forms of slavery, Behar offers modifications: legislated periodic adjustments, an optional Shmittah Sabbath of liberation every seven years, and a Yovel Jubilee of liberation every fifty years, totally freeing all slaves, and restoring lands to their former inhabitants. This is a vision for phasing out the institutionalization of debt upon which slavery was based by inserting periodic second chances, opportunities to start over, surely an idea whose time has not yet come.
Much as we know that slavery is an inherently immoral institution that should not exist in any form, we also know that it still exists all over the world. Most commonly referred to nowadays as human trafficking, debt bondage, serfdom, domestic servants kept in captivity, and in certain adoptions of children and in forced marriages. Refugees, homeless people and innocent incarcerated people all endure forms of enslavement as well. Like our ancestors, we are still struggling to find ways to address these gross perversions of human dignity and equality.
Globally, we strive to bridge extreme economic divides through the United Nations and the World Trade Association. Nationally, we try to bridge them with a living minimal wage including equal pay for equal work, affordable housing and social safety nets, as well as National Service programs. And of central importance to bridging economic divides is universal healthcare, the kind that includes reproductive health.
While Behar refers specifically to the Israelites’ relationship to the land and slaves of their time and place, it speaks to us now as a metaphor for how we relate to the land we inhabit, the land that gives us life and sustenance, as much as it does to how we relate to each other. These relationships are the essence of the holiness Torah teaches. Holiness is not a lofty ethereal matter here. It can be conceived, received or contemplated in prayer and meditation on the mountain, but the practices of holiness are relegated and legislated on the ground, socio-economically, and interpersonally, in our daily lives.
We know all too well how our own history of slavery has damaged the core of our national identity as a land of liberty, and how difficult it has been to outgrow slavery’s insidious socioeconomic and interpersonal aftereffects. One of our American symbols of justice and freedom, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, has the inspiring words of Behar’s idea of Jubilee release engraved on it: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” A recent New York Times article called “‘Why We Still Care About America’s Founders” ends with the reason we also still care about the ancient Israelites: “For better and for worse, their story is our story. Their fight remains our fight.” The challenges of living in freedom, comfort, and a home are to address the challenges of living in slavery, poverty and homelessness. These sets of challenges occupy two sides of the the same economy, the same morality. Whether we like it or not, we are united by a radical transcendent idea of the Common Good, a utopian idea that inspires us, even as it divides us.
Our Talmudic rabbis have traced the ethics of daily interpersonal interactions to the ethics of economics taught in today’s parshah. They teach that Behar ethics are embedded in our very choice of words. To the degree that we choose language in accord with these ethics, we will not defraud or shame each other, nor will we speak down to each other or elevate ourselves. The underlying idea is to be mindful of our every word so as not to bring each other pain and discomfort, but rather to honor our own and each others’ holiness with every single word.
Our relationships, our bodies, our possessions, and the land we inhabit are all a sacred trust. We are taught to nurture this trust by being mindful at all times and by ritualizing the holiness of time itself. In these ways we are taught to bring forth the sparks of holiness that are embedded within each of us and dwell among us.
Our twentieth century prophet Martin Luther King, (paraphrasing a nineteenth century Unitarian Minister’s metaphor) said, “Let us realize that the arc of moral history is long, but it bends toward justice.” I imagine the arc as a kind of pendulum that goes back and forth. At rare and precious times, with great human effort and sacrifice, it does bend toward justice. Sooner or later, there is a backlash, and it bends toward injustice! And that’s when we know it’s time to gear up, and give it all we’ve got, to bend it back again.
Like Abraham Heschel and Martin Buber, MLK reminds us, through his life and teachings, to be on constant alert to direct and push the arc of moral history towards justice and the Common Good as much through the way we speak to each other, as we do when we support just causes, and elect candidates who support our democratic institutions, such as the checks and balances of three co-equal branches of government.
Through the ages, multiple voices from diverse cultures and religions, teach us to be ever vigilant, never complacent, to keep on bending that arc of history “toward liberty and justice for all,” for our own sake and for the sake of future generations who will some day call us their ancestors.
On constant alert, yes, except on Shabbat when we remember to rest and enjoy the prevailing liberty and justice that we and our ancestors have achieved thus far.
Sue Pearl Ezekiel
May 25, 2019, Iyar 20, 5779