I had a fascinating week. I’d like to share some of it with you.
On Monday evening I was invited to accompany my friend, Jack Pechter, to the annual fund raising dinner of the Robin Hood Foundation at the Javitz Center in New York. I could tell you about the details this extraordinary event, but you can ask Jack…suffice it to say, that it was the most outstanding event of its type that I have attended. Filled with celebrities and great entertainment, they raised 54 million dollars that night to help eradicate poverty primarily through supporting educational initiatives, early childhood support, prison reform, feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. Robin Hood is our TLC on steroids. I must say, in some ways it was an expression of the best of humanity. People helping people. People trying to even out the playing field for future generations. It was a religious experience… so many with so much, taking time out to help others in a profoundly significant way. It was a moment of great hope.
And then I went to Washington… what a week to be in Washington. If you think you are confused and uncertain about what is happening, know that our leaders are too…
I was with a group of Federation leaders including many from this congregation (Emily Grabelsky, Alan Hurst, Annie Jacobson, Robert Russell, Stuart Silver…) First we learned about the advocacy work of the Jewish Federations of North America for many underserved populations. We received briefings from experts on the ADA (The Americans with Disabilities Act) bill which is seeing a challenge. The challenge will greatly reduce the chances of American’s with disabilities to receive the support they need at the most critical times. And from these policy experts we learned about the health care bill and its impact on so many in this country; the elderly, the young, and the challenged populations. The potential cuts to Medicaid could be devastating. And we met with Congressmen Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Alcee Hastings, and Debbie Wasserman Shultz. We met with Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson. And we spoke about our own community concerns for the elderly and the disabled, and for our agencies that serve them. And we spoke about our concerns for the larger population in America.
I’m not speaking here simply to review my week. I’m speaking because of the profound nature of the commandments in our parshah this week and how this conversation relates.
When I grew up I had an Uncle who was a dairy farmer. On the years of the Shmitah he would leave part of his fields unharvested. And regularly he would leave the corners of his fields unharvested. He did so because he was a frum Jew, and although the commandment applied to our people living in Eretz Yisrael, he wanted to be able to teach his children and his grandchildren, nieces and nephews about the Torah.
The reading this morning begins with the laws of the Shmitah, that is the sabbatical year. And on that year the fields were to rest, lay fallow. On the seventh year debts were to be forgiven.
If it seemed arcane and irrelevant in our time, we simply are not giving attention to the deeper meaning which lies behind this law. And the next law, that is the law of the “yovel.” And this is about the 49th year…seven sevens. And this year not only was there to be no planting and harvesting, b’ not only would debts be forgiven, but also all properties were given back to the original ownership. There is much written and lots of commentary on this.
What’s in it for us? That’s needs to be our question. What difference does it make?
I always ask that question. Because of my deep belief that the Torah needs to be an “Eitz Chayimm Hi”…a living, breathing document that shines meaning on our lives. And so we dig deeper or we find values and symbolic meaning.
And it continues to surprise and enlighten. For even ancient laws about agriculture teach us, not just about the land, but about social and economic justice.
For my uncle Lou the farmer, the meaning was agricultural and land based. He agreed with Rashi’s interpretation. Land, like people needs to rest. And best practices of agriculture understood this. So either fields did reap, or crops were rotated… And today in the corporate giant agri-businesses chemicals and feeds are used to replenish the crop – often at great price to our well-being.
Last week I mentioned in a different context that I believed that the primary focus of Torah was to create a community of people who were devoted to each other and to the world. Our religion was never about an individual’s faith, rather it was about individual responsibility to the world, God’s world, if you will.
And so there is a fundamental difference between Judaism and the other religions. It’s not about how you will be saved, or how your faith leads to reward…it is about the impact of your behavior on others…
It is about your responsibility to others, be they members of your family, your community, your people or any people. And this ethic is also contrary to a strain of thought in America… that has to do with individualism and personal gain.
We don’t oppose either of those. But we affirm that they need to be controlled, because left to their own devices, the freedom of the individual is uncontrolled… society will break down. The numbers of poor will grow and grow and a super wealthy and small percent will control resources.
The Shmitah, the sabbatical year’s intent was to control that. It is an ancient law, but it reflects an advanced social reform. The rabbis adjusted the laws so that the poor could not take advantage of the rich. They developed a system so that loans and debt could be a part of the economy without flying out of control and destroying the society. And this system protected all in society from feudalism and totalitarianism; assuring liberty to all the inhabitants of the land…wonderful words; not only found in the Torah, but repeated on the Liberty Bell.
And so I think about my uncle and I think about these laws and it was evoked by the juxtaposition of this parshah and my visit to Senator Nelson’s office. I’ll explain.
An old morality tale… We are told that when the first Dutch Settlers came to the island of Manhattan they realized its great potential as a center for trade, a port city, an entry way into North America, not to mention, its beauty. Coming from Europe the Dutch made a financial offer to the Native American tribesmen who occupied Manhattan. The story goes on to say that the Native Americans laughed at the offer; not because it wasn’t fair, rather because of their connection and understanding of the land. How could they sell something which didn’t belong to them in the first place? The land was God’s and they were here to preserve it for future generations.
The laws of Shmitah and the Yovel come to us to tell us that. We ultimately do not own the land. In fact, a wise heart knows that we own very little. Our capacity to share for the well-being of all is what will determine our success. There are times where giving up and giving over makes us richer and more powerful. So Rashi said, Shmita (Sabbatical land) was about rest. Rambam said, it was about perspective of the land and it belongs to God.
The idea of the survival of the fittest is not about the strongest individual, it is about an individual’s capacity to be a part of something larger. And that takes the willingness to compromise and to give and to share.
The Shmitah and the Yovel will insure that there will not be ruling classes amongst our people. There is a return that takes place. And before God…we are all equal.
What pushes back against these ideas and ideals? I think it is human greed. It is reflected in the individuals need to have more and more and more and not know when to say…I have enough.
There’s a new book by an Indian author, Vivek Shanbhag. It’s the story of a family unravelling. It was a small family, united in poverty and a common struggle to “make it” in the world. They open a spice company which in short time brings them great wealth. They move from the old neighborhood and their close knit bonds begin to fray. The spice company grows and grows and becomes international. The next generation does not have to work hard. And as they become wealthier marriages begin to fall apart. And the narrator of the book states: I learned it is not we who control the money, the money controls us. When there’s a limited amount it behaves meekly. When there is a lot, it becomes brash. You no longer own things, things own you.
In her novel, Anne Tyler expresses her sense that she is owned by her many possessions. Little by little she lets things go… and then one day, with very little, she feels liberated. Such a truth and such an irony.
So the messages are few but meaningful.
We are not ultimately the owners of this world. We stay for a short while and when no longer here we realize what really matters.
In our tradition I would say it is love of family, it is learning, it is giving, it is kindness…and it is community connections.
The great Hillel said:
The more Torah, the more life, the more schooling, the more wisdom, the more counsel, the more understanding, the more righteousness the more peace.
What does this have to do with Senator Nelson? Well Bill Nelson was an astronaut before he entered politics. His office is filled with pictures from space, models of rockets, paintings that reflect the grandeur of the universe…
There is one painting of an astronaut tethered as he floats in outer space. He’s not tethered to a space ship rather he’s tethered to the planet earth, like a baby in a womb with an umbilical cord tying him to mother earth.
When speaking about our society, and the terrible partisanship that is destroying us, the tremendous gaps between those with and those without…the Senator reminded us that we are all in this together. Our planet in the vastness of the universe is small. And so we better learn a few things. He said when he looked out the window he quoted scripture…The universe is the world of God, we are very small; and we ultimately are not the owners…
Our capacity to care for each other…as I saw at the Robin Hood Foundation; Our capacity to care for each other, as will be determined by our legislators, our ability to say…we are really one family who need each other and need to care for this earth…That’ll be what brings us security and stability as we move forward in this world.
HaShamayim ShamayimL’Adonoi V’HaAretz Natan Livnei Adam…
The heavens are God’s… what we do with this earth and all is inhabitants, this is in our hands.