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Parashat B’har (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)

“You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules,
that you may live upon the land in security. (Leviticus 25:18)

Parashat B’har should be required reading for every candidate in this year’s election. It describes the shmita (the seventh, or Sabbatical Year), when the land lies fallow and debts are cancelled. After seven cycles of shmita, the 50th year is a yovel, a Jubilee, in which land reverts to its original owner and slaves are set free. B’har is about addressing the tension between freedom and equality.

B’har recognizes freedom and equality are each cherished values. But societies tend to lean more toward one or the other, with significant implications. Generally, the more society promotes individual freedom, the greater the likelihood of economic inequality. And the more society promotes economic equality, the greater the likelihood of restrictions on individual freedom. It is hard for freedom and equality to exist simultaneously in absolute terms. B’har’s solution is embrace them sequentially.

Shmita and yovel can be understood as periodic corrections (every seventh and fiftieth year) to the “market” to manage economic and social inequality. They do this by imposing rigid standards of equality (all are free, none are beholden, and no one can farm so everyone forages), but only for a limited period (one year). This arrangement recognizes two truths. First, personal wealth is an illusion; everything actually belongs to God (since God created everything) and we are merely trustees. Second, the inevitable concentration of wealth in the hands of the few brings with it obligations to the poor.

B’har understands a just society is not a perfect society. Rather, it is a humane society based on the premise everyone matters equally. It also is a connected society: what affects you affects me-even if I don’ t realize it.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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