Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.
Have you been keeping track of the Torah portions the last few weeks? There’s been a wonderful progression where we have learned what it means to respect each other, our families, and ourselves. But this week, in Parshat Behar, we turn our attention to the world around us, and how to make society a better and more equal place.
If you’re an economist or a mortgage banker, hold onto your hats.
We are instructed to keep track of 49 years, literally “seven weeks of years” (7x7). Then on Yom Kippur of the 50th year, or Jubilee year, something amazing will happen. A shofar will be sounded and at that moment, all slaves will be freed, all debts will be forgiven, and all land ownership will revert to its previous owner.
Wow. It’s too bad nothing like this existed when I was paying off my student loans.
Basically, the Torah was trying to prevent the Israelites from forming a class system, where you have a small group of wealthy individuals who own all the property and are in the position to lend money to everyone else, forcing them to rack up massive debt (coughliketheonepercentcough). One way that an ancient person could satisfy a debt was to become an indentured servant — a type of slave, but without the same connotation as we’re used to from our history books.
Can you imagine Wall Street trying to figure out this one? Do you think the ancient Israelites had to form an Occupy Sinai movement?
If, for instance, you knew that you were in year 48 of this cycle, would you ever give a loan to someone else knowing that in just a couple of years it would be cancelled? All commerce would stop and even a primitive economy would be paralyzed. Therefore, the Torah further instructs everyone to charge accordingly — the more years remaining before the Jubilee, the higher price one can ask for land, and the fewer years remaining, the lower the price.
The bigger picture, of course, is that all land and everything that we seek to possess really belongs to God. As Jews, we’re not required to forsake all material goods and live in poverty. But we need to earn and own responsibly, treating others with fairness and being thankful for what we have.
Beneath all of this talk of debt forgiveness and land ownership, we can find a wonderful message for teens and young adults. It’s common to get caught up with the idea of “needing” to own the latest or most luxurious item, whether it’s the newest and fastest computer, newly released video game, or current fashion in the store window. The Torah is teaching us that while everything has a value, it might not be as much as you think it is.
If you absolutely must have that brand new computer, how long will it give you that feeling of satisfaction? Will you still be as happy with it after only a year? Two years? How much longer until you begin to complain how slowly and glitchy it runs, and start looking forward to a new one? Before long, you’ve already discarded that once precious purchase and replaced it with another.
And look, that cycle only took a few years, not 50.
Previous week’s parshas:
Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt
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