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Torah Sparks

May 12, 2007 – 24 Iyar 5767

Annual: Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34 (Etz Hayim, p. 738; Hertz p. 531)
Triennial: Leviticus 27:1 – 27:34 (Etz Hayim, p. 753; Hertz p. 547)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14 (Etz Hayim, p. 763; Hertz p. 551)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of This Week's Parashiot

The opening section of this week’s Torah reading prescribes a seven-year farming cycle in the Promised Land. Farmers are expected to work the land for six years and to let all the land lie fallow throughout the seventh year, which is known as the year of Shmitah.

The fiftieth year, which comes after seven such cycles, has the special status of Yovel -- Jubilee year. A key aspect of the yovel was that any land that had been sold during the previous 49 years would return to its original owners. The obvious intent of this rule was to give a fresh start to people who may have suffered economic reversals. A farmer could be separated from his land temporarily, but that separation could not be permanent. Under this system, the Torah explicitly recognizes (Leviticus 25:15-16) that what appears to be a sale of land in reality is only a sale of the use of the land until the Jubilee year. The price, of course, would change constantly, dropping as the yovel drew ever closer. One especially familiar passage in this week’s Torah reading is the verse excerpted and inscribed on the Liberty Bell: In the language of the eighteenth century, Leviticus 25:10 was translated:

Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.

The underlying assumption of the above system, as outlined in Leviticus 25, is that the land belongs to God, who lets us use it. We are to serve as stewards of the land, taking good care of it under a divine mandate. When Israel lives up to the expectations expressed in God’s covenant, then all will be harmonious. When Israel reneges on the covenant, the consequences may be disastrous, as articulated in Chapter 26.

Chapter 27 concludes the book of Leviticus with a discussion of vows that may be made for sacrifices or other gifts within the system of ancient worship. (This mirrors the book’s opening chapters.) Vows are to be taken with the utmost seriousness. Exchanging (when permissible) for something that was promised by vow can only be done upon payment of an additional one-fifth of the value of the vowed item.

Issue #1: Understanding the Sabbatical Year of the Land

Farmers develop a special relationship with the land. The world around them usually pushes them to squeeze as much production as possible fromtheir land, year after year. (Nowadays this yield might be measured in bushels per acre.) All of this encourages the farmer to take from the land. The shmitah, the land’s sabbatical year, encourages the farmer to appreciate the land at the same time that the land is given an opportunity to renew itself.

Just as the farmer depended on the land for sustenance, so do most of us depend on our own work to sustain us economically. Many employers, especially in the academic and nonprofit worlds, allow their staffs to take sabbatical leaves. Why would institutions encourage such leaves? Are there ways that the commercial sector could benefit from giving employees some time off? Should we, like the ancient farmers of Israel, take periodic opportunities to look at the world from a different perspective? Why or why not? How might a person go about implementing such a plan? What kinds of goals, personal and for an employer, might be part of a sabbatical leave plan?

Issue #2: Are There Limits to Charitable Generosity?

Sometimes a person can get carried away with enthusiasm for supporting a worthwhile cause. Maimonides warns against such a scenario in the following passage:

A person should never consecrate or devote all of his possessions. He who does so acts contrary to the intention of the Torah, for it says “of all that he has” (Leviticus 27: 28), not “all that he has,” as our sages made clear. Such an act is not piety but folly, since he forfeits all his valuables and makes himself dependent on other people, and no one will take pity upon him. Of such, and those like him, the sages have said, “The pious fool is one of those who cause the world to perish.” Rather, whoever wishes to expend his money in good deeds, should disburse no more than one-fifth, in order that he might be, as the prophets have advised, “one that orders his affairs righteously” (Psalms 112:5), be it in matters of Torah or in the business of the world. Even in respect to the sacrifices which a person is obligated to offer, the Torah is sparing of his money, for it says that he may bring an offering in accordance with his means. All the more so in respect to those things for which he is not liable except in consequence of his own vow, should he vow only what is within his means, for the Torah says, “Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God, which he has given you” (Deuteronomy 16:17). (Mishne Torah, Book Six, 8:13)

What else could a person do to support a worthwhile cause, besides utterly impoverishing himself? In a day when many people have assets which are more than adequate for personal needs (indeed some people have assets as great as some countries!), does Maimonides’ advice still ring true? Might there be a way to reinterpret his directives to prevent poverty when there is little chance of impoverishing a person who gives up 20% of his assets?

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