Parashat B’har-B’chukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

“In this year of jubilee, each of you shall return to his holding.”  (Lev. 25:13)

Parashat B’har describes both the sh’mita (Sabbatical year) and yovel (Jubilee year) when land reverts to the original owner, slaves are set free, and debts are cancelled.  These practices demand both a certain amount of personal sacrifice as well as a tremendous amount of social cohesion.  They also make an important statement about how economies work, a relevant subject today.

David Graeber (a professor at the University of London) claims significant economies, even in Biblical times) have always been based on credit, not barter.  Credit implies both risk (to the creditor) and debt (to the borrower).  So,  while the Torah expects debts to be paid, it admits that does not always happen.  More importantly, the Torah acknowledges the inability to pay a debt may be due to circumstances beyond an individual’s control (as when bad weather destroys a farmer’s crop).  In that case, the inability to repay is not a moral failure, merely an economic one.  (Western society does not separate those two issues until 1706 with the invention of modern bankruptcy in England.)  The Torah recognizes that forgiving debt is sometimes the most practical way to reboot a debt-ridden economy, benefitting the people as a whole for the long term.

On the surface, B’har looks like a pre-figuring of radical land reform.  However, it is more accurate to say B’har  uses social justice means to achieve purely capitalist ends:  to keep the economy growing for the long haul.

B’chukotai is the final parasha (portion) in Leviticus.  It is customary (in the Ashkenazic, or European tradition) for the congregation to stand up and say, “Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek”  (Be strong, be strong, and let us summon up our strength) at the end of the reading.

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