Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise, Shabbat 13th Iyyar 5776, 21st May 2016,
Picture the scene. The Israelites, fresh from slavery, from miracles by the dozen, from hearing God speak to them from the heavens are given the mitzvoth. Moshe recites, the people absorb. Two months out of slavery and they are now getting a lesson in advanced economics, about how each seventh year they have to LET GO OF THE LAND THEY HAVE NOT YET REACHED and each 50TH YEAR they have to give it back to its original owner.
What would your reaction be? Hey, Moshe, let’s get to the land first; then we’ll talk about letting it lie fallow every seventh year? Or, What do you mean you’re taking the land and not letting me work it! It’s mine!
That’s today’s parsha, the absolutely most socially oriented of all 54 parshot in the Torah. It’s all about land and money and being poor and freedom. It’s a recipe for spreading the wealth and ensuring that a tycoon class does not become so overwhelmingly powerful that everyone else becomes enslaved to them.
It’s easy, too easy, to compare the contents of the parsha to the way the local and world economy is run today, and say, tsk tsk tsk, we are naughty children and we should do better and the government should read the parsha and legislate laws to enforce these mitzvoth. But that’s just self-righteous handwringing, with a dollop of truth and a cherry on top.
What is interesting in the parsha is the fact that 3000 years ago or so, the conditions were also right for tycoons, or whatever they would have been called then, to flourish. In other words, the Torah recognizes that some people will always be richer than others and that there will always be poor in the country. The Torah is not a socialist manifesto. It is not against riches. It accepts wealth as a fact of life.
What we understand today is that if individuals, or groups, do not strive to get ahead, to do more, to earn more, to create more innovative and imaginative products, if they do not dream about reaching new heights, whether it is a skyscraper or the moon, humankind will simply not move ahead. Similarly, if people don’t invest in businesses and services that may not have existed before, there won’t be progress. And if they DO invest, they may succeed and make money. So there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it.
But what the Torah does, in our parsha and elsewhere, is to set down some ground rules. One is that you have to be honest. Lo tonu ish et achiv. Do not cheat, or swindle others. But because the same word, tonu, to swindle, appears twice, chazal broadened its scope. The second intention of the word tonu is to malign one another. And as Rabbi David Stav points out, the Talmud gives clear examples. If a person asks where he can buy a product, not from you, then intentionally sending him to the wrong place is wrong. According to the Talmud, you can’t even feign interest in buying a product if you really have no intention of buying – that really bites into window shopping!
The intention of this expression in the Torah, and indeed the intention of the mitzvoth of the Torah, is to regulate how we treat others. It’s a dog-eat-dog world? Yes, but you don’t have to feast on dogs (they are not kosher). Obviously, some people will gain more than others. That’s the way things develop. Communism legislated against being richer than others – but the result was simply that the riches continued to flow into secret coffers that some elite had to work harder to hide than in a more capitalist society. When we read about how much money this dictator or that tyrant stashed away in foreign accounts while his people suffered and starved, we say it is hard to believe that people could be so selfish. But they are. And we believe it.
This parsha is supposed to be an antidote to such behavior. Get rich, but within boundaries. Let’s take the attempts to limit the salaries of bank CEOs. What’s the difference between earning 8 or 10 million a year or only 3 million a year?
But that’s simplistic. The real message of the parsha is that you come into this world with nothing and you leave it with nothing. Everything we have is on loan from on high. It is temporary. From the land to the money. From the fruits of the field to the possessions in our homes. This is most obvious in the shmitta year and the yovel, the jubilee, but it underlies the social mitzvoth, especially those dealing with the less fortunate in our society.
There’s no denying that having a little more than you need is more comfortable than having less than you need, but between that and amassing fortunes that exceed the gnp of whole nations is a big jump. A corollary of this message is that even in an era of me-first and no-one-can-tell-me-what-to-do, we have to restrain ourselves. We have to remember Hillel’s message to the heathen: The great principle is do unto others as you would have others do unto you. All the rest is commentary.
We actually see some expressions of this social awareness around us. Billionaires donate hundreds of millions for educational projects, millionaires support programs for the weaker populations. That’s on the fiscal level.
But on the second level we are seeing growing callousness toward individuals, toward whole sectors of the population. Even if we are not swindling others in the first sense of the word tonu – acting fraudulently – we are tending more to abuse one another in the second sense of tonu – maligning them. And I am not talking only of Jewish-Arab relations. I am talking about the growing extremism in how we treat whole sectors and indivduals within our society that differ from us in their views or practices. Worse yet, this is a global trend.
It’s encouraging that we have mitzvoth like these, which have been read year after year for thousands of years. We see the results. Being the cockeyed optimists that we are, we believe that the fact that we read and discuss the subject every year means that someday we may actually listen to what we are saying. In the meantime, we who are not in those higher echelons will continue to do what we have always done on our own local, group or individual level. And that is something too.