Torah Addresses the Issue of Inequity


By Rabbi Nathan Martin


When reflecting on the temperament of human beings, our ancient rabbis suggested that the wicked human is the person who sees all of the world as potential for exploiting. They are the ones who say, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” (Pirkei Avot 5:10).

Interestingly, in the beginning of this week’s parsha, God is the one who makes this exact kind of statement. After outlining the rules for letting the land rest every seven years — the Shmita — and for the added 50th year of rest and property restoration — the Jubilee — God says, “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Leviticus 25:23).

This is not the first time that God reminds us that she is the ultimate owner of all in exchange for liberating us from Egypt. We are commanded repeatedly to offer our first fruits to God and that God owns the firsts of our wombs and our animals’ wombs.

Our willingness to offer up our firsts is our collective demonstration of loyalty in exchange for God’s protection and blessing. In our parsha, divine power is derived from divine ownership of the land and is the key to enforcing ethical behavior. If we seek to dominate the land without letting it rest or dominate others through economic exploitation, God will, as a result, close the womb of the land, reducing its productivity and open us to suffering.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the same divine enforcement mechanisms in place today and, as a collective, we are clearly not remembering that God holds the deed to all the earth; nor are we heeding the broader lessons of Shmita and Jubilee on how to respect the earth in accordance with the owner’s instructions.

In a recent Sunday morning session with my teens at Congregation Beth Israel, we watched together the short documentary film called The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. In the film, Leonard notes that the consumption-driven model of our economies is putting our planet in crisis. In the last 40 years we have consumed more than one-third of the planet’s natural resources and have thrown away 99 percent of what we buy within the first six months of buying it.

Our world economy is a linear system that relies on heavy resource extraction, which is bumping up against the limits of a finite planet.

While clearly this issue is a much more complicated one than one dvar can solve, our Torah portion provides some useful principles for us to draw from as we seek to face the challenge of using up our planet:

We are a collective. Virtuous behavior and its subsequent reward is not based on the individual but on the collective. This means that in addition to our individual decisions around consumption — such as, I’m going to fix and reuse my toaster or buy biodegradable soap — we also need to work toward systemic change that pushes the makers of products towards a zero-waste manufacturing model and incentivize consumers to reduce what we buy and use.

Humility matters. While we may not ascribe to the notion of a God who rewards and punishes, integrating the idea that we are caretakers of a property that we don’t own is powerful. How can we cultivate humility in the face of decisions that have generational consequences — such as the drilling of a gas well — and take into account the well-being of our future grandchildren?

Inequity needs to be addressed. Our parsha notes that not only do we let the land rest in the 50th year, but that all property is returned to its original owner. This built-in mechanism was an attempt to redress the concentration of wealth (land) into the hands of the few. Today, we see everywhere the pernicious inequality brought on by unchecked accumulation of wealth that is deeply destabilizing to our social contract and the planet.

Perhaps underlying all of these principles is the notion of the sacred. While God is the source of the sacred, the land and humans, by extension, are also manifestations of the sacred. By commanding the Israelites to rest on the seventh year (as well as resting one day every week) God is reminding us that we and our planet are all part of the sacred cycle of creation and renewal.

In today’s often bewildering world, where we face daily challenges to care for friends and loved ones and to create a healthy polity, the lesson of treating each other and the world as sacred can sometimes be forgotten.

May we all find ways to continue to remember and reintegrate this lesson each and every day as we take on the challenging work of rebuilding our world in God’s image, a world where all are cared for, and where the way we live is based on regenerative and restorative principles, and not ones of exploitation and extraction. 

Nathan Martin is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel of Media. He also is an active board member of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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