Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Economics of Human Dignity - Reflections on Parashat Behar 5776

(Leviticus 25:1 - 26:2)

If you want to construct a utopian economic order, put down Das Kapital and pick up Parashat Behar.

Parashat Behar deals in large measure with the laws of Shemitah, the sabbatical year. Here's the basic 411: for six years, landowners work their fields, plant their seeds, reap their harvests, pay their taxes. But in the seventh year, everyone's land lies fallow; ownerless, as it were. The rich and poor alike are free to glean from whatever perennial fruits, vegetables and grains that grow wild. Hoarding is strictly forbidden. Fences come down, and domesticated livestock and even wild animals are free to trample in the fields and eat their share unmolested.

Because in the seventh year, the land reverts to its true owner, the A-lmighty Gcd who created the heavens and the earth.

Furthermore, all personal debts are forgiven in the seventh year, and indentured servants are released.

After seven shemitah cycles, that is, 49 years, the fiftieth year is the Jubilee year. Three amazing things happened in the Jubilee year: (1) Jewish servants who (for whatever reason) refused to leave their masters earlier, were forcibly emancipated; (2) the Jubilee year was an additional sabbatical year in which everyone's fields lied fallow for a second consecutive year, and (3) all real estate transactions became null and void, with the land reverting to the original seller, the owner of the ancestral plot.

The grand, overarching theme of these rules is the preservation of human dignity. While rewarding innovation and hard work, the Torah describes an economic system that establishes human dignity as its core value, far above the profit principle.

How so?  Every area of human economic endeavor ultimately derives from the earth. From the food we eat, to the steel, glass and rubber that we use to build our automobiles, to the silicon that makes the chips for our devices, to the trees and concrete we use to build our homes, to the energy we utilize to make it all run - all of it comes from the earth. 

By observing the sabbatical year on the Land, we acknowledge that whatever measure of financial success we enjoy is dependent upon the earth, which in turn is wholly due to Gcd's beneficence. Shemitah shatters the myth of the self-made man who answers to no one but himself (and of course worships his creator); of the notion that there is no limit on the accumulation of wealth; of the notion that we are free to spend the fruits of our labors according to our fickle whims and peccadilloes.

Rather, Shemitah drives home the idea that we are mere stewards of everything that we possess, and that we have an attendant responsibility to manage those gifts wisely.

Once we recognize our indebtedness to Gcd for our own successes, we are prepared to advance to the next step and recognize that our fellow is co-equal to us as a servant of Gcd, also created in His Image and equally important and valuable in His eyes. His right to be treated fairly in the deal is no less important than our own. 
Whether you are a seller or a buyer, don't take advantage of your fellow in the deal. (25:14)
That fact will guide the conduct of our financial transactions with others, and the sum of those human-dignity-based transactions create the Torah's utopian economy.

Rule: Indentured servants should go free after no more than six years - laden with gifts, and ready, eager and retrained in their new trade to make a respectable living as freemen. 

Rule: No servant of Gcd can have two masters forever, and must be freed in the Jubilee.

Rule: If a person is reduced to working for an hourly wage, treat him as an artisan at his job and do not humiliate him through demeaning work.

Rule: If a person should sell their ancestral plot out of dire necessity, the obligation falls to his immediate relatives to redeem his land for him that he may once again live with dignity. If he or his family cannot raise the funds to bail him out any sooner, it perforce reverts to him in the Jubilee year.

Rule: Personal loans are forgiven in the Shemitah year to allow the destitute a chance for a fresh start, for hope and for dignity.

Rule: The reversion of land to its ancestral owners in the Jubilee year prevents the concentration of disproportionate amounts of wealth in the hands of the very few.  It was an economic "reset," the original anti-trust legislation.

Here in the United States, we are suffering through a season of political astonishment: liberals are astonished that a brash demagogue like Donald Trump could be the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, while conservatives are astonished that Bernie Sanders, an unapologetic socialist, can garner 40% of the Democratic vote.

But the United States is also a place where the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen; where the dream of home ownership as the primary path to personal wealth is evaporating; where taxes, already punitive and confiscatory, continue to rise, in order to feed an intrusive and metastasizing government and service an out-of-control sovereign debt; where labor is treated as disposable, to be spent, exploited and discarded when no longer of use. 

Both Trump's and Sanders' approaches are deeply, deeply flawed. Unfettered, rapacious, slash-and-burn capitalism is fundamentally unethical. And socialism has failed in every setting it has been attempted, because it punishes, rather than rewards, the natural human impulse to build, create and innovate. 

Parashat Behar shows us the middle path: a benign capitalism that puts people before profit. It provides capitalist financial incentives for innovation, criminalizes exploitation of labor, and provides mechanisms for the economic protections for all citizens of the Jewish society.

Because the underpinning of a dignified, meaningful Torah life is the ability to make a respectable living. 

Maybe this parasha should have been called The Heart of the Deal.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Karate Kid Kedushah - Reflections on Parashat Kedoshim 5776

(Leviticus 19:1-20:27)

Someday, in the very distant future, when I approach the podium to - reluctantly - accept the Nobel Prize for Thought-Provoking Torah Blogs Presented Through the Medium of Trombone, I will have many people to thank: my wife, my kids, my parents, the Academy...

This week, though, I must give a nod to three great people: Rashi, Rav Kook and Pat Morita.

First the Rashi: This week's Torah portion begins with the general exhortation to be holy, and then continues with a list of 51 specific mitzvot/commandments, understood to be the means for achieving a holy life. 

In verses 19:11,12 we read:
Don't steal, and don't deny the truth, and don't tell lies to one another. And don't swear to a lie by My Name, that you should desecrate the Name of Gcd, I am Gcd.
Pretty solid advice. However Rashi sees these commandments, not as separate injunctions, but as being connected to one another: "If you steal, you will deny it, leading you to tell an outright lie to cover it, ultimately leading you to take a false oath in Gcd's Name." 

Rashi's brilliant insight got me to thinking about the idea of connectedness in all the mitzvot in Parashat Kedoshim.

If you go back and study the structure of the narrative, you will detect an interesting pattern: the mitzvot (or cluster of interrelated mitzvot) are presented in couplets, punctuated by the statement Ani Hashem/I am Gcd.

A man should fear his mother and father
And My Sabbaths you should observe
I am Gcd.

Do not turn to false deities
And do not make for yourselves physical representations of Gcd
I am Gcd.

[The laws of the peace offering]
[Set-asides for the indigent and the dispossessed]
I am Gcd. 

(I could go on, but if you check it out for yourself, you'll see that the structure holds.)

In each case, beyond the simple meaning of each mitzvah, the structure of the coupled mitzvot teach a meta-lesson. 

Take the first couplet: the underlying rationale for respecting one's parents is the same for observing the Shabbat and holidays. The respect accorded to our parents - as those who created us, gave us life and nourished us - is the same respect we accord to Gcd as our Creator, Who has given us life and has nourished us. And observing the Shabbat bears eloquent witness that Gcd created the entire universe, including us.

Or the last example: don't think that you can get right with Gcd by bringing a peace offering with great fanfare in public, while stealing from the poor in private. (Bam! You now understand the Book of Isaiah.)

All well and good. But why couplets? Why not triplets or quatrains?

The Torah is teaching us something very profound about what it means to be holy. The parasha opens with "Kedoshim Ti'hiyu," you should be holy because I, The Lcrd Your Gcd, am Holy. The couplets speak both to a perfected world that will be, and to the imperfect world that we currently inhabit. 

One the one hand, the parasha outlines a perfected, messianic society; a model in which the poor are provided for, where there is no cheating or stealing or lying or narcissism. A society in which we love one another as we love ourselves, without deceit and subterfuge. A world united in the common recognition that every good thing emanates from the Source of All Goodness. Perhaps that is why the exhortation of Kedoshim Ti'hiyu is phrased in the future tense, not in the present tense.

One of my favorite scenes in the original Karate Kid (1984) is when, early in the movie, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) teaches Daniel-san how to trim a bonsai:

I view the bonsai as a metaphor for the work of tikkun olam/perfecting the world to the Gcdly ideal.

As Kedoshim, holy ones, our task is to focus single-mindedly on that idealized society, without distraction, seeing nothing but the bonsai; taking the world that is handed to us and transforming it into the picture of that perfected, messianic society that the Torah describes and which we envision in our mind's eye. For the seventy generations since the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem we have been hard at it, and with each passing generation, through the performance of these mitzvot, we draw ever closer to that ideal. 

But how do Kedoshim deal with the imperfections of the world along the way? What of the evil-doers, idolaters and oppressors of the poor? That is the other part of the couplet, of dealing with the world the way it is.

In this, we are guided by luminaries such as Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook. Although we of course never met (he passed over to the World of Truth in 1935), his teachings resonate in my soul so deeply that I, like many others, consider myself to be an intellectual heir, a disciple of his.

In his day, Rav Kook had many detractors, particularly in the Old Yishuv of Jerusalem. They set about publishing and distributing many scurrilous pamphlets and posters, shamelessly excoriating him personally and lampooning his magnum opus, Orot.

And yet, as an exemplar of holy behavior, he never took the bait. He never struck back, replied, or even attempted to defend himself against the scathing criticism of his accusers. He held his tongue and absorbed the abuse without complaint; to the contrary, he dealt with his accusers kindly, never withholding alms even for those of the other camp who knocked on his door in desperate need. 

That is the mark of a holy person. The true litmus test of Kedoshim is how they deal with the darkness they encounter along the way. To aspire to holiness is to never lose sight of the big picture. The bad guys may have the momentary upper hand, but they never prevail. This, too, is the lesson of the couplets in our parashah.

Every Othello has his Iago. As many readers of this blog are already aware, my family and I have been harassed by an irksome madman who has spread monstrous rumors about us to anyone gullible enough to listen. It's also no secret that his whispering campaign has cost me several rabbinic positions. 

In his boundless arrogance, he considers himself Gcd's gift to the Jewish people, but he is much less like the messiah, and much more like Daniel Greer; and Benny Minster and Toviah Singer and his other felonious cronies.

Guided by the example of Rav Kook, we have done our best to ignore him and his wild lies, and we will not dignify his sordid accusations with a public response.

To the contrary: the talmud in Tracate Kiddushin 32 states that a true talmid chacham/student of Torah overlooks insults to his reputation and doesn't chase honor. So people are free to say whatever they want about us, it is of no concern. The A-lmighty above knows the whole truth, and that truth has a funny way of revealing itself in the end.

There is a very moving meditation that is said right before going to sleep for the night: 
Master of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or has sinned against me either personally, or financially, or against my reputation; whether he did so accidentally, intentionally, carelessly or purposely; whether in speech, deed, thought or idea...may no person be punished on my account.
And of course there is the thrice daily meditation at the end of the amidah: "Give me the fortitude to let my soul be silent in the face of those who accuse me falsely."

I hope and pray that this "Iago" receives the spiritual and psychological counseling he so desperately needs. As for me, I entrust myself to those who know me best: first and foremost my precious family; and my rabbanim, my colleagues, my students and my true friends.

The key is not to be distracted by the maligners. We must not get caught up in the nonsense; rather, we must keep working towards creating the perfected society portrayed in Parashat Kedoshim. That was the path of Rav Kook.

For my part, I will continue to teach Torah undeterred, in order to bring Gcd's People closer to His service; and in so doing, hope to make a small contribution to the collective endeavor of our National Bonsai.

Shabbat Shalom.