Behar consists of a single chapter that, despite its brevity, had a transformative impact on the social structure of ancient Israel and provided a unique solution to the otherwise intractable conflict between two fundamental ideals: freedom and equality. Much of human history has illustrated the fact that you can have freedom without equality (laissez-faire economics), or equality without freedom (communism, socialism), but not both. The powerful insight of the Torah is that you can have both, but not at the same time. Therefore time itself has to become part of the solution, in the form of the seventh year and, after seven sabbatical cycles, the Jubilee. These become periodic corrections to the distortions of the free market that allow some to become rich while others suffer the loss of land, home, and even freedom. Through the periodic liberation of slaves, release of debts, and restoration of ancestral lands, the Torah provides a still-inspiring alternative to individualism on the one hand, collectivism on the other.
38 I am Adonai your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt in order to give you the land of Kena‘an and be your God.
(RY: iv, LY: vi) 39 “‘If a member of your people has become poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him do the work of a slave. 40 Rather, you are to treat him like an employee or a tenant; he will work for you until the year of yovel. 41 Then he will leave you, he and his children with him, and return to his own family and regain possession of his ancestral land. 42 For they are my slaves, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; therefore they are not to be sold as slaves.
At the heart of Israel was an idea almost unthinkable to the ancient mind: that God intervenes in history to liberate slaves – that the supreme Power is on the side of the powerless. It is no accident that Israel was born as a nation under conditions of slavery. It has carried throughout history the memory of those years – the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of servitude – because the people of Israel serves as an eternal reminder to itself and the world of the moral necessity of liberty and the vigilance needed to protect it. The free God desires the free worship of free human beings.
Yet the Torah does not abolish slavery. That is the paradox at the heart of Parshat Behar. To be sure, it was limited and humanised. Every seventh day, slaves were granted rest and a taste of freedom. In the seventh year, Israelite slaves were set free. If they chose otherwise they were released in the Jubilee year. During their years of service they were to be treated like employees. They were not to be subjected to back-breaking or spirit-crushing labour. Everything dehumanising about slavery was forbidden. Yet slavery itself was not banned. Why not? If it was wrong, it should have been annulled. Why did the Torah allow a fundamentally flawed institution to continue?
In last week’s parsha and this there are two quite similar commands, both of which have to do with counting time. Last week we read about the counting of the Omer, the forty nine days between the second day of Pesach and Shavuot:
From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord.
This week we read about the counting of the years to the Jubilee:
Count off seven sabbath years – seven times seven years – so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.
There is, though, one significant difference between the two acts of counting, and it tends to be missed in translation. The counting of the Omer is in the plural: u-sefartem lachem. The counting of the years is in the singular: vesafarta lecha. Oral tradition interpreted the difference as referring to who is to do the counting. In the case of the Omer, the counting is a duty of each individual. Hence the use of the plural. In the case of the Jubilee, the counting is the responsibility of the Bet Din, specifically the supreme court, the Sanhedrin. It is the duty of the Jewish people as a whole, performed centrally on their behalf by the court. Hence the singular.
Implicit here is an important principle of leadership. As individuals we count the days, but as leaders we must count the years. As private persons we can think about tomorrow, but in our role as leaders we must think long-term, focusing our eyes on the far horizon. “Who is wise?” asked Ben Zoma, and answered: “One who foresees the consequences.”
Leaders, if they are wise, think about the impact of their decisions many years from now. Famously, when asked in the 1970s what he thought about the French Revolution which took place in 1789, Chinese leader Zhou Enlai replied: “Too soon to say.”
Jewish history is replete with just such long-term thinking. When Moses, on the eve of the Exodus, focused the attention of the Israelites on how they would tell the story to their children in the years to come, he was taking the first step to making Judaism a religion built on education, study and the life of the mind, one of its most profound and empowering insights.
Throughout the book of Devarim he exhibits stunning insight when he says that the Israelites will find that their real challenge will be not slavery but freedom, not poverty but affluence, and not homelessness but home. Anticipating by two millennia the theory of the 14th century Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun, he predicts that over the course of time, precisely as they succeed, the Israelites will be at risk of losing their asabiyah or social cohesion and solidarity as a group. To prevent this he sets forth a way of life built on covenant, memory, collective responsibility, justice, welfare and social inclusion – still, to this day, the most powerful formula ever devised for a strong civil society.
“Just the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to running, and they will run scared as if running from a sword! They will fall even when no one is chasing them! They will stumble over each other as they would before a sword, even though no one is chasing them! You will have no power to stand before your enemies.” (Lev. 26:36-37)
But despite all that, when they are in enemy territory, I will not reject them or despise them to the point of totally destroying them, breaking my covenant with them by doing so, because I am the Lord their God. But for their sake I will remember the covenant with the first generation, the ones I brought out of Egypt’s land in the sight of all the nations, in order to be their God; I am the Lord.
Even in their worst hours, according to Leviticus, the Jewish people will never be destroyed. Nor will God reject them. The covenant will still be in force and its terms still operative. This means that Jews will always be linked to one another by the same ties of mutual responsibility that they have in the land – for it was the covenant that formed them as a nation and bound them to one another even as it bound them to God. Therefore, even when falling over one another in flight from their enemies they will still be bound by mutual responsibility. They will still be a nation with a shared fate and destiny.
One day, Maurice offered to take her for lunch. On their way to the restaurant, they passed a beggar in the street. Maurice gave him a coin, and walked on. Vivienne stopped and asked Maurice if he would be kind enough to give her in advance a substantial sum – she named the figure – from this week’s wages. Maurice handed over the money. She then walked back and gave it all to the beggar. “Why did you do that?” asked Maurice. “Because what you gave him was not enough to make a change to his life. He needed something more.”
When the week came to an end, Maurice said to Vivienne, “I am not going to give you your full wages this week, because you gave away part of the money as a mitzvah and I do not want to rob you of it.” But it was then that he decided that he must marry her, because, as he told me shortly before he died, “Her heart was bigger than mine.”
I tell this story because it illustrates a dimension of parshat Behar we often miss. Leviticus 25 deals with a problem that is as acute today as it was 33 centuries ago. It is about the inevitable inequalities that arise in every free market economy. Market economics is good at the creation of wealth but bad at its distribution. Whatever the starting point, inequalities emerge early on between the more and less successful, and they become more pronounced over time.
Economic inequality leads to inequality of power, and the result is often the abuse of the weak by the strong. This is a constant refrain of the prophets. Amos speaks of those who “sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; who trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground, and deny justice to the oppressed“(Amos 2:6-7). Isaiah cries, “Woe to those who make unjust laws and issue oppressive decrees … making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless” (Is. 10:1-2). Micah inveighs against people who “covet fields and seize them, houses and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2).
Finally, though, and most profoundly comes the theological dimension. For it is here, in Lev. 25, that we hear with unparalleled lucidity what I believe to be the single most fundamental principle of biblical law. Listen carefully to these two passages, the first about land, the second about Hebrew slaves:
The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine: you are strangers and sojourners with me.
If your brother becomes poor and sells himself to you, you shall not work him as a slave …For they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God.
The Torah is making a radical point. There is no such thing as absolute ownership. There is to be no freehold in the land of Israel because the land belongs ultimately to God. Nor may an Israelite own another Israelite because we all belong to God, and have done so ever since He brought our ancestors out of slavery in Egypt.
It is this principle that alone makes sense of the Torah’s narrative of the creation of the universe. The Torah is not a book of science. It is a book of law. That is what the word “Torah” means. It follows that the opening chapter of the Torah is not a scientific account but a legal one. It is not an answer to the question, “How was the universe born?” It is an answer to a different question entirely: “By what right does God command human beings?” The answer is: because He created the universe. Therefore He owns the universe. Therefore He is entitled to lay down the conditions on which He permits us to inhabit the universe. This is the basis of all biblical law. God rules not by might but by right – the right of a creator vis-à-vis his creation.
Nowhere is this clearer than in parshat Behar, where it becomes the basis of legislation about land ownership and slavery. Jewish law rests on the principle that only God owns anything. What we possess, we do not own but merely hold in trust. That is why the concept of tzedek/tzedakah is untranslatable into English, because it means both justice and charity. In English, justice and charity are radically different. We do justice because we must; we give charity because we may. If I give you £1,000 because I owe it to you, that is justice. If I give you the same amount because I owe you nothing but I think you need it, that is charity. An act may be one or the other but not both.
In Judaism, by contrast, what we possess is not ours. It belongs to God. He has merely placed it in our safekeeping. We are looking after it on behalf of God. One of the conditions of that trust is that if we have more than we need, we should share it with those who have less than they need. That is tzedakah: justice and charity combined.