Parashat B’har (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)

“…When you enter the land that I assign to you,
the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord.” (Leviticus 25:2)

Parashat B’har is the Occupy Movement’s Biblical prooftext. It describes the shmita (the seventh Sabbatical Year), when the land lies fallow and debts are cancelled. After seven cycles of shmita, the 50th year shall be a yovel, a Jubilee, in which land reverts to its original owner and slaves are set free. B’har is a trenchant statement about the relationship between the land, the economy, and society.

Biblical economy is primarily agricultural and the farmer (or daughter) without land is not only out of luck financially, but is disenfranchised politically, too (the census in Numbers counts future landowners). B’har recognizes the corrosive effects of such a two-tiered society and provides shmita and yovel as remedies. During shmita, only that which grows naturally may be eaten (Lev. 25:6-7). This provides equality of opportunity for all, irrespective of social class or gender; everybody must forage to survive. Classic commentators observe the rich learn what it is like to be poor during shmita, and hopefully, are encouraged to support the poor. During yovel, land and slaves (two bases for wealth in agricultural societies) are released to their original status, narrowing the gap between rich and poor.

Both shmita and yovel are reminders everything we have is God’s gift and human ownership (or domination) is ephemeral and illusory. The Torah knows poverty can’t be eradicated (Deut. 15:11). But it also knows a bifurcated, disconnected society is a society at risk. Shmita and yovel are the mechanisms for reconnection and recalibration. When B’har states, “For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you…” (Lev. 25:12) it means only a just and whole society can be a holy society.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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