Parashat Behar states: “… Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest…. You shall hallow the 50th year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.” [Lev 25:3-4,10]
Parashat Behar, then, declares amnesty for the land in every 7th year, and amnesty for those enslaved due to debt every 50th year. During the sabbatical year, the year of no planting, whatever grows of its own accord is to be left for the needy. Furthermore, later on in Parashat R’eih, the Torah commands that all debts are to be canceled during the 7th year as well.
From a practical perspective, allowing the land to rest every 7th year was smart practice, as it strengthened the land and produced better crops going forward. From a moral perspective, these Sabbatical and Jubilee year mandates were a call to move people away from the extreme edges of the economic bell curve.
Society as a whole benefits when we raise up those who have the very least, and our nation’s current financial state could use some of what Parashat Behar has to offer. A very few are being wildly enriched while the majority struggle, and those with the very least struggle mightily. The real estate implosion and Great Recession of 2008; the ongoing battle over raising the minimum wage vs. massive executive compensation packages; the current Covid-related health and economic implications of being poor vs. having means…
Some extreme billionaires, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, have created their own versions of the modern Sabbatical or Jubilee year, although they don’t wait until every 7th or 50th year. They give away an enormous percentage of their wealth in an attempt to even out society’s extremes of inequality. They recognize that once you possess an extraordinary level of wealth, adding yet more wealth makes no difference in one’s life. It’s unlikely the Gates’ household ever hears the following words uttered: “Wonderful, Melinda, an extra $12 billion this year. Now we can replace our old car!”
Excessive wealth is put to much better use fighting insidious illnesses, feeding the hungry, providing clean water to those who have none, and otherwise reducing the wretched conditions in which those at the extreme bottom of the economic bell curve live.
I am not advocating against our free-market system. I believe it brings out the best in people and organizations, with regard to hard work, invention, production, and economic growth. However, it seems to be much better at producing wealth than at distributing it in a way that makes sense. Production has skyrocketed in recent years, but most companies have chosen to hoard their vast amounts of newly created wealth. Meanwhile, the workers whose increased production generated that wealth continue to suffer financially, unable to catch up much less get ahead.
There is something inherently suspect about a system where CEOs earn ever more extraordinary incomes while the incomes of most others stagnate or decrease. A very few seem to be sucking the lifeblood out of the economy and our society at the expense of the many. Power, unfortunately, often leads to abuse, and modern regulation that mimicked the biblical sabbatical and jubilee years would decrease the severity of this abuse.
Parashat Behar teaches us that an economic system must exist within a moral framework. The goal is not economic equality. It is okay for some to have more than others, as this provides incentive to work hard and move up the economic ladder. The goal is preservation of human dignity. No one should work hard and still be unable to provide their family with the basics. No one should be permanently buried under a mountain of debt. No one should be a slave, literally or figuratively, to their employer.
In the interest of basic fairness, those on the extremes of the financial bell curve, on both ends, must be brought just a bit further away from the edge. Those who have excessive amounts of wealth must be compelled to engage in modern Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Outrageous wealth must be highly taxed, and the financially enslaved, freed. We are all responsible for one another. Let Parashat Behar serve as a financial moral beacon for us all.