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.

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