What if I wasn’t me?
This week’s Torah portion, Behar, has the special distinction of containing the words engraved on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25:10). Coincidentally, I just returned from chaperoning our 7th grade trip to Philadelphia, and had the opportunity to share this wild bit of serendipity with our students – great timing!
The context for this quote relates to the Shmitah cycle – an agricultural and debt-relief system from the ancient world, also described in the same chapter. According to the Torah, every seventh year is considered a sabbath for the land – no planting or reaping is permitted. This cycle continues today, and last year was in fact a Shmitah year, observed only by some who live in Israel. Furthermore, in the 50th year of the cycle, known as Yovel (or the Jubilee year) any possessions (human or land) that changed hands due to debt are returned to their original ownership – it is as if every 50 years we were to completely erase everyone’s credit history. The Jubilee is no longer observed, because the Rabbis ruled that it only applied when all twelve tribes resided in Israel.
I find the laws of Shmitah/Yovel totally fascinating, since they require a system of social life that is so radically different from our own. Our own perspective on ownership is that anything we acquire through legal means will be ours forever, passed on to our descendants until the end of time. In the ancient biblical system, nothing is really ever owned permanently, including our own bodies. Everything is on loan from the divine, and Shmitah and Yovel are reminders of that fact. This system’s rationale is linked to the quote above – it is meant to spread liberty throughout the land, to all its inhabitants. This is consistent with the Jewish perspective on Tzedakah – the word means justice, not charity – we are commanded to pursue justice, and to help those in need, because if you think that everything you have isn’t actually yours, then giving isn’t a charitable act – it is simply doing what is just and right.
Imagine what would be different about your life if you really believed that everything you own was really just on loan from God? Would you treat things differently? Would you make different choices about spending and saving, or giving charity? Would you treat other people differently?
I’m not advocating this system for modern society, by the way – just wondering how my own outlook would be different if I lived in such a world. It might be interesting to wonder with your children what it would be like to live in other circumstances: What if you’d been born in India, or Mexico? What if you’d been born a different skin color? What might be different about your life?