Israel must organize its society in such a way that reflects Hebrew values while transcending the friction between conflicting economic models.
While the Torah instructs Israel to aspire towards a “kingdom of priests and holy nation” (Sh’mot 19:6) in the land of Israel, a just social order and stable economy – outlined for us in Parshat Behar – are two crucial ingredients to fulfilling this charge.
A Hebrew Economy
Since the Zionist movement’s early years, there has existed a conflict between self-proclaimed adherents of socialism and those favoring markets and a strong private sector.
For decades following the reestablishment of Jewish independence, this battle has raged and formed deep divides. Although conflicts with our neighbors, increased westernization and foreign pressure to shrink the state’s borders in recent decades have often caused class issues to fade into the political backdrop, several factors make clear that Israel still lacks the socio-economic ideal necessary to serve as a paragon of justice and morality to other nations.
Israel is tasked with becoming a light unto nations. As the national expression of HaShem’s Ideal for this world, the Jewish people are meant to demonstrate for mankind how to live all facets of life in such a way that actualizes and fully expresses our inner kedusha.
The State of Israel must set an example of excellence to the rest of the world in every sphere of national life, from commerce and agriculture to governance and social services. Israel must aspire to build a perfect society that functions according to G-D’s Truth in every detail of life. The formula is not man-made but rather a sacred reality that transcends the limited perceptions of human intellect. Only through existing as such a holy nation in the whole of Eretz Yisrael can the Jewish people hope to lead humanity into a future of genuine harmony and universal fulfillment.
Parshat Behar: Establishing a Just Society
In order for Israel to achieve this goal, it is necessary that we establish a just society reflecting the values of our Torah. The children of Israel must determine and implement social policies that benefit both the collective society and the individuals within. Because Israel is meant to serve as a national light to mankind, the Jewish state must become a model civilization in which people live lives of dignity and fulfillment while wholeheartedly sharing in the collective national burden.
In ancient times, Israel’s system for organizing its primarily agricultural economy appears to have transcended the points of friction found in many contemporary arguments between the proponents of various models for structuring society and production.
The Shmita Cycle
From the time Yehoshua bin-Nun apportioned Eretz Yisrael among the Hebrew tribes (excluding Levi), each family essentially received an equal portion of land to work. Economic activity would proceed largely unregulated for a six year period until the seventh year, called a Shmita (Sabbatical) year, when all productive agricultural activity would stop.
“Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for HaShem. For six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyard; and you may gather in its crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for HaShem; your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. The after-growth of your harvest you shall not reap and the grapes you had set aside for yourself you shall not pick; it shall be a year of rest for the land.” (Vayikra 25:2-5)
It is important to understand these laws within the context of ancient Israel’s agriculture based economy. Each Shmita year essentially halted all major economic activity within society. For a Shmita year to have the same impact on the State of Israel today, its reach would have to expand far beyond the agricultural realm and pause production in almost every area of Israel’s economy.
In addition to the prohibition on productive agricultural work, the Shmita year also features a remission of debts, allowing those who had fallen on hard times during the previous six years to get out from under their misfortune.
“At the end of seven years you shall institute a remission. This is the matter of the remission: Every creditor shall remit his authority over what he has lent his friend; he shall not press his friend or his brother, for He has proclaimed a remission for HaShem.” (D’varim 15:1-2)
These seven year cycles serve to balance various values in society, granting each family equal access to the necessary resources to succeed for a largely unregulated six year period of production guided by what many today would call “market forces.” The following seventh year would then grant the land and everyone on it a rest from agricultural pursuits while helping those who had been unsuccessful back onto their feet.
“If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him – stranger or resident – so that he can live with you.” (Vayikra 25:35)
Every seven cycles, a Yovel (Jubilee) year would reset the economy and further level society by freeing Hebrew indentured servants and returning to each family any lands it might have lost due to economic hardships during the previous fifty years.
“You shall count for yourself seven cycles of Sabbatical years, seven years seven times; the years of the seven cycles of Sabbatical years shall be for you forty-nine years. You shall sound a broken blast on the shofar, in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, on the Day of Atonement you shall sound the shofar throughout the land. You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants; it shall be the Yovel year for you, you shall return each man to his ancestral heritage and you shall return each man to his family.” (Vayikra 25:8-10)
Ancient Israeli society was essentially organized in such a way that allowed for independent economic initiatives free from interference for six year periods balanced by powerful failsafes to prevent wealth inequality and offer each generation equal access to the resources necessary to live dignified successful lives.
Because the various ways by which modern societies organize themselves tend to fall short of the model enjoyed by ancient Israel, the modern State of Israel shouldn’t limit itself to working within the framework of the choices offered by the outside world.
Rather than adhere to rigid foreign concepts, Israel must set our agenda in accordance with Hebrew values and promote a new outlook in compliance with Torah culture – an all-encompassing approach that will reflect the essence of ancient Israel’s economic model and succeed in expressing the highest values in seemingly conflicting contemporary outlooks.
Parshat Behar Emphasizes Israel’s Cultural Conflict with Edom
A central goal of Israel’s redemption process is freeing mankind from the limitations of an exclusive adherence to dualistic logic. Utilizing a more authentically Hebrew dialectical approach, Israel must help humankind transcend beyond the contradictions of ostensibly conflicting ideals towards a higher awareness of opposites actually enjoying a deep inner unity.
A clear yet simple example of this concept is found in the Hebrew understanding of kedusha. While Western thinking has traditionally viewed holiness as the triumph of the spiritual over the physical, Israel’s more holistic approach recognizes kedusha as being the healthy unification of spiritual and material realities.
An exclusive and absolute adherence to dualistic thinking is only one of the many damaging features of Western civilization – a civilization principally based upon the value system of Esav, whose Edomite descendants ultimately became the Roman Empire, morphed into the Christian Church and dominated Europe.
Utilized as a means of social control, the doctrine of Christianity spread far and wide while spiritually oppressing a significant share of humanity. As Europe’s feudalist social structure began to give way to the rise of capitalism and Europeans began to conquer and pillage the new world, the culture of Edom took on a secular form, still rooted in the barbarism of its forerunners.
Although offering far more people more opportunities than feudalism, capitalism as a system is essentially based on the competition between rival capitalists – those who own and control the production process – to attain profits. Without the Hebrew Shmita and Yovel year failsafes, capitalism ultimately leads to perpetually widening social and economic gaps.
To beat out their contenders and constantly feed this ever-expanding system, leading capitalists enlist the aid of their governments in finding markets in other countries, gaining access to natural resources and exploiting cheap labor, essentially spawning the same imperialism that characterized ancient Rome. Within the capitalist mode of production itself exists a drive compelling individuals and nations to dominate and oppress their weaker counterparts.
With an emphasis on individual over collective success, capitalism gave rise to a powerful culture that indoctrinates the masses to constantly consume, subliminally promoting life’s goal as the acquisition of material wealth. The motivational forces driving Western man to be productive became the pursuits to accumulate the most money, bed the most attractive women, drive the fastest cars and live in the largest homes. While the Torah certainly requires men to be physically attracted to their wives and successful in providing for their families, these do not serve as the actual foundations of a Hebrew society. Unlike Western civilization, which places the materiel success of the individual at the center, Hebrew civilization is primarily concerned with the moral and spiritual wellbeing of the collective.
Parshat Behar Outlines the Model Israeli Economy
The future to which Israel is bringing the world is one in which the motivational force driving man becomes an idealistic desire to perfect the entire world. To become partners in Creation and experience HaShem working through us as we actively bring history to its ultimate goal.
For Israel to lead humankind to this stage first requires a conscious rejection of Edomite values in favor of a society based on giving and caring for the other, in which production is determined by actual human need. We must realize that the capitalist system only seems natural to us when we perceive ourselves as separate from – and at odds with – one another. The more we recognize humanity’s true inner unity, the more we appreciate our intrinsic subconscious drive to succeed collectively.
The Torah forbids us from permitting the impoverishment of other people as we are commanded to provide assistance to our brothers in need. Helping the poor is not merely a recommendation but actually a directive from HaShem and Divine expression of justice, no different than safeguarding the Sabbath or liberating Eretz Yisrael from foreign rule. Israel’s historic mission necessitates bringing all of humanity to the conscious awareness that Creation, with all of its multiplicity and variety, is actually one single entity – an organic whole of which we are each unique and crucial parts.
Recognizing this unity to be our true inner nature compels us to organize society in such a way that expresses that unity and conditions us to consciously understand and function according to it. The ultimate goal towards which history is advancing necessitates the establishment of a social order founded on the morality and justice of our Torah – where no person is exploited and all live in friendship and mutual respect, setting an example of justice and perfection to mankind.
[Published in Vision Magazine]