Rest, Relief, and Reset

By Larry Herman, May 25, 2024

Shabbat Shalom.

I like it when a parsha has a unifying theme. It helps to concentrate the mind. Diane and I have a guilty pleasure of watching a television show which has four separate story lines in each episode. After each of the stories is introduced, we engage in a game of guessing what is the unifying theme of the episode. So let’s see if we can spot the unifying theme of B’har.

This week’s parsha has four story lines.

  • The Sabbatical Year: It begins with the commandment for the Shmitta year. An absolute rest for the land and for the farmers who get the year off. Afterwards, miraculously, everyone gets enough food to eat.
  • The Jubilee Year. After seven cycles of sabbatical years, we cap it off with a super sabbatical in the 50th Every 50 years the farmers take off two years and even more miraculously, everyone still has enough food to eat. More importantly, after fifty years, we have a reset. Everyone goes back to the land they started on. This section also puts in place some rules about the purchase of land as the Jubilee approaches, because you’re not actually buying the land, but only the number of agricultural yields until the Jubilee.
  • Redemption: Even if you are forced to sell your land, presumably because of indebtedness, you can redeem your land. Either you manage to scrape together enough money or a relative can step in and help. And the owner of the land is required to accept a fair price, that being based on the number of yields until the Jubilee year. And even if you can’t buy your land back, don’t worry, you’ll get it back in the Jubilee year anyway..

Restrictions: Finally, we have rules about how you are to treat those who have become poor or destitute. Basically, you cannot treat them badly, cannot charge them interest, cannot treat them like slaves – although you can have slaves from other nations – and in any case, in the Jubilee year, your indentured servants are freed and go back to their land.

So I ask you again, what’s the unifying theme?

The Etz Ḥaim Ḥumash suggests that it’s Principles of Land Tenure because it includes the laws of Shmita and the Jubilee year. But these laws do not only deal with the very interesting principles of land tenure. Nor do they indicate how the land is to be divided up. And land tenure doesn’t cover the parts of the chapter that deal with redemption and debts. Land tenure is a theme, but not the theme.

Now, I’m guessing that most of you know that the inscription on the famous Liberty Bell in Philadelphia comes from verse 10 of this parsha. The inscription, which uses the King James translation, reads:

Proclaim Liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.

So, if you thought that the dominant, if not unifying theme of the parsha is liberty, you would be in good company.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has six commentaries on parshat B’har posted on his Covenant and Conversation website. Four of those six include long discussions of liberty as a dominant theme of the parsha, three of them referencing the inscription on the Liberty Bell, and one entitled The Economics of Liberty. Clearly, Rabbi Sacks saw the unifying message of the parsha as being The Value of Liberty.

This is especially personally appealing for me because the liberty message based on this verse is also the theme of the Silverman Haggadah that I have used at my Pesaḥ Sederim for many years. Rabbi Morris Silverman focused on the universality of liberty as the message of Passover. The penultimate page of his Haggadah includes an abstract illustration of the Liberty Bell over the Hebrew and King James English translation of the inscription. He writes, Liberty is … universal and indivisible.

But a careful reading of the text presents two challenges.

The Hebrew of the phrase is:

וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכׇל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ

The word דְּר֛וֹר is commonly translated as liberty or freedom. But the JTS translation found in the Etz Ḥaim Ḥumash translates דְּר֛וֹר as release:

You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants

The Jubilee Year is not about liberty, but about releasing the land back to the original owners.

I like the way Robert Alter explains it:

One must regretfully forgo the grandeur of the King James Version, inscribed on the Liberty Bell…In fact, the passage is concerned with the legal arrangements regarding property in the Jubilee year, and modern scholarship has persuasively demonstrated that דְּר֛וֹר does not mean “liberty” but is cognate with a technical Akkadian term, anduraru, which means a release from or moratorium on, debts and indenture.

Not being fluent in Akkadian, I will take Alter at his word. It becomes a bit of a stretch to try to universalize the technical concept of a debt moratorium.

But there’s also the question of just how universal this liberty or release is, as even Rabbi Silverman acknowledges. He writes:

One sage asked: “Are we to proclaim liberty, as the verse implies, only in the Holy Land?” “No!” was the answer. “The law requires us to proclaim liberty everywhere in all the countries of the world.”

Now that sounds nice, but the sages were very clear that the Jubilee Year only applies to Eretz Yisrael and it only applies when all the inhabitants, meaning all the tribes, were present in the land. But Silverman is undeterred: We must first proclaim liberty in the land in which we live, and make it a reality in our own country. …We are required first to put our house in order, and to remove injustice in our own land, so that our advocacy of liberty for all people shall have the ring of sincerity.

I agree. Completely. Especially today. But it’s pretty clearly not the unifying theme of the parsha.

As proof reader of The Library Minyan Weekly Update, I had the advantage of reading this week’s Torah Morsel before I put this drash to rest and I found a wonderful statement of a potentially unifying theme – economic justice. Our friend Mickey Rosen does a brilliant job of concisely explaining this. He tells us that the Torah wants to keep income inequality at a manageable level and then he urges us to grapple with the adverse social effects of economic inequality in our day. Again, I couldn’t agree more.

But as Rabbi Sacks tells us, the Torah is not an economic theory. The Torah can only set out the parameters of a society based on economic justice. The prescriptions found in parshat B’har almost certainly never worked in practice. The idea that produce from the Sabbatical year could stretch over three years, – read verse 21 – be shared by all, feeding rich and poor alike, defies logic and every law of agronomy that I know. And while the idea of debt relief and returning to an initial land allocation is appealing, contemporary experience doesn’t make one sanguine about its likely success. To cite just one example, in the year 2000 a consortium of international development agencies organized a debt Jubilee for a group of Heavily Indebted Poor Countries. About $130 billion of debt was cancelled. For most of the beneficiary countries, however, indebtedness quickly recurred and even surpassed previous levels.

What all these ideas about the message of B’har have in common is that they focus on societal rules for improving social welfare through rest, … relief, … and reset. The message is addressed to the collective and not to the individual.

However, I think that B’har can also be viewed from the lens of the individual and understood as a metaphor for improving our personal lives. We each need rest, respite, and an opportunity to reset.

The rest part is clear:  we all need Shabbat and we all need a Sabbatical. Take a break. Take a vacation. And if you’re lucky enough to have an employer who’ll offer it, take a Sabbatical. While I’m pretty sure that the land didn’t produce double or triple during the Sabbatical year, I’m certain that taking periodic breaks does increase one’s productivity. Numerous academic studies report that those who take a sabbatical experience increases in productivity in their work and positive changes in their life.

As for relief, in the best of times most of us need a respite. Maybe we don’t need to have our property redeemed or our debts forgiven, but we do need relief from some of our day-to-day burdens. This is especially true for caregivers for whom

The ongoing demands of taking care of someone else can strain even the most resilient person. …It’s critical for caregivers to ask for help and take a break when they need it.

And the rest of us need to step up and step in. But all of us need some down time, and not just from work. I know that for me, I need to learn to take a break from the information overload that 24/7 connectivity causes.

Finally, there’s the reset. The functional equivalent of the Jubilee. In the parsha the Jubilee envisioned a return to the status quo ante, the world that existed back in the day, when times were good, or at least some remember it that way. I sure wish that there were a reset button on the world right now, but we know that’s not going to happen. However, we can still try to push the reset button on our personal lives, to try to change those things that no longer work the way they were supposed to, or how we hoped. Like the Jubilee in our parsha, resetting is messy and difficult, and maybe not even fully possible. But perhaps like the Jubilee, shmitta, and redemption rules which were certainly more aspirational ideals than fully functioning systems, just envisioning a reset might help us improve our own lives.

And I’ll add that sometimes resetting can also be renewing or refreshing, which is exactly what has happened in the Library Minyan with the wonderful contributions of the young cohort. Despite my own relatively recent arrival here, I’m both pleased and proud of this renewal.

Shabbat Shalom

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