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Unemployment and Torah

Yesterday I had the privilege of delivering the D'var Torah at the local Connect to Care town hall meeting and networking opportunity.  This event was for those who have found themselves unemployed or underemployed because of the recent economic crisis.  I am proud that my synagogue was one of the event's co-sponsors. 

Thank you Jim Krantz.  Thank you to all of the organizers of this Connect to Care event: UJA-Federation, Sid Jacobson JCC, Jericho Jewish Center and my congregation and its leadership.

This week’s Torah portion is Behar, from the book of Leviticus.  It is a portion decidedly focused on eretz yisrael, the land of Israel.  In particular it outlines two laws.  It first details the sabbatical year, shmita, the seventh year in which the land must remain untilled.  We are commanded not to work the land during this year.  We can only eat what grows on its own. 

The spiritual intention of this law is clear.  Everything is deserving of menuchah, rest.  In addition it reiterates the age old Jewish principal.  Everything belongs to God.  Just as you can’t do whatever you want with your bodies so too you can’t do everything with your land.  Everything is borrowed.  Everything is on loan.  In a sense on the sabbatical year the landowner and the landless are on equal footing.  Both can only take what the untilled earth offers. 

The second group of commandments makes the point that all belongs to God even stronger.  It is the law of the jubilee year, the yovel.  In the 50th year three things are to occur: 1. the land is again to lie fallow (by the way that would mean that the earth would remain untilled for two years: on the preceding sabbatical year and then the jubilee year), 2. Hebrew slaves are to be set free and 3. all properties sold must revert to their original owners.  This combined with the commandment detailed in the book of Deuteronomy that not only is the land to lie fallow on the seventh year, but that all debts are forgiven on that sabbatical year, are indeed worthy of further examination at this moment when we gather as a Connect to Care community.

To be honest it is doubtful that these practices of the jubilee when all land reverted to its original tribal owners and the remission of all debts were ever practiced.  As they say in modern terms, that might bring the economy to a standstill.  Nonetheless the ideal offers us an extraordinary teaching.  The Torah here suggests that not only does the land belong to God but also our wealth.  Even our money is in a sense God’s.  All our worldly accumulations belong to God.  

What is the goal of these biblical laws?  So that we might better share with others.  So that we might not measure ourselves by the acres we own or the wealth we accumulate.  The Torah wants to draw a circle around the community.  It seeks not fence others out, but to fence all in. 

I think about this when I see our fenced in backyards. We work to keep our neighbors out. The Bible worked to bring our neighbors in. The Torah wants us to share with others. It wants us to include others. The Bible wants to instill in our hearts the idea that nothing is mine and everything is God’s.

As I read the Torah portion’s words I think to myself what it might be like to sit where many sit.  Far too many are unemployed and far too many are underemployed.  What an extraordinary opportunity it would be to have the jubilee this year, to have this ancient do-over when all debts would be wiped clean and each us would have the opportunity to start over.  Too many feel that they are not even returning to the starting line, but instead beginning yards back because they are suffering under crushing debt.  I wish I could proclaim the jubilee for all.  I wish I could blow the shofar and announce that jubilee and say we are all starting over.  Everything and everyone is back to the beginning.  It is good to dream—especially when it is the Bible’s dream.

I of course have no such power.  Not only am I poor shofar blower, but such power belongs to no one today.  Long ago we lost count.  And the 50th year was never again proclaimed.  But each of us has the power to transform our own souls.  Each of us has the power to proclaim such a thing to ourselves.  Each of can say to ourselves that my wealth is God’s. 

If the Torah is right, and I believe it to be so, that land is not truly mine, but God’s then I can never lose.  I am only a tenant.  Each of us is only a tenant.  Holding such a belief in our souls might prevent us from becoming broken.

As a rabbi that is my most fervent hope and prayer. Despite all difficulties and struggles may our souls forever remain whole.  Kein y'hi ratzon.