The Vision of Yovel for Our Generation

The mitzvah of tzeddaka teaches that the responsibility for making a living  lies with the individual, and only if one is unable to take care of himself, the responsibility passes on to others * The mitzvah of Yovel  complements this, determining that natural resources be divided equally among all * Thus, the Torah integrates both socialism and capitalism * Today as well, there is room to explore the equal distribution of resources and allotting a certain percentage of the capital to all citizens, once every Yovel * In mankind’s present situation competition is necessary; however, when the Divine light is revealed in the world – people will realize they are not competing with one another, but rather, improving and complementing each other

Choice and Equality: Yovel

Must society provide for all the needs of each and every individual, or is this the private responsibility of every person? Is it right to divide profits equally among all the people? Which economic system is correct: socialist, or capitalist? It seems the basic answers to these questions and inspiration to solve them can be found in the mitzvoth of Yovel (Jubilee year) and tzeddaka (charity).

The mitzvah of Yovel is for the Jewish nation to count seven years, seven times, and make the fiftieth year the Yovel year. In this year, Jewish slaves are freed to return to their homes, and fields are returned to their original owners and left to lie fallow as in the shmitta year (seventh year).

Ownership of Land and the Mitzvah of Yovel

God commanded Israel to divide the land among the tribes, and the inheritance of each tribe to be divided among the families and households of that tribe. Seeing as each individual has his own special mission in life – and in order to reveal that mission, he must live freely and independently – it is imperative for every Jew to reside on his land, and make a living from his own inheritance.

Nevertheless, God created man with both a good and an evil inclination. The tzaddikim (righteous people) who choose good, overcome their evil tendencies, work diligently in their fields, and prosper from their harvest; those drawn in pursuit of their evil inclinations seeking lust and laziness become addicted to various desires such as alcohol and other pleasures of idleness, and neglect their fields. They waste a great deal, earn little, sink into debt, and forfeit their future for the sake of the fleeting moment. Scarcity increases until they are forced to sell their crops and homes, thus decreeing a life of hardship upon their families, seeing as one’s fields was his main source of income. If they failed to pull themselves together and work diligently as a salaried employee, they would sink further into debt to the brink of starvation, and be forced to sell themselves into slavery.

True, some people became impoverished as a result of a disaster or illness beyond their control, but when our national situation was sound, the mitzvah of tzeddaka helped sustain such people without them having to sell their land, or themselves. However, it was difficult to assist those who became enslaved to greed and laziness, because even after receiving help, they continued to plummet. This is how some Jews ended up selling their fields, and themselves, into slavery.

God had mercy on them – and especially, on their families – and determined the mitzvah of Yovel in the fiftieth year, when we were commanded to free the slaves, and return the fields to their owners or heirs. By this means, the verdict of poverty did not haunt the families of Israel for generations, but every fifty years, each family could start a new life, begin to act responsibly, get out of poverty, and contribute to the improvement of society.

The Circles of Responsibility in Helping the Poor

From the mitzvah of tzedakka we learn that there are circles of responsibility, and only when the inner circle is unable to function does the responsibility of the outer circle come into play.

In the inner circle is poor person himself; he is primarily responsible for his own situation and that of his family. Therefore, if a person who was able to work but chose not to, throwing himself instead on the public, the gabba’ei tzedakka (charity managers) would make sure that he worked. Only on the condition that he worked as hard as possible, but nevertheless, it was still not enough, would they give him tzedakka. As it is written in the Torah: “Ha’kim ta’kim imo” (“You must ‘help him‘ pick up the load”) (Deuteronomy 22:4) – ‘together with him’ there is a mitzvah, but when he shirks his responsibility, there is no mitzvah to help him.

When a poor person is unable to take care of himself, the responsibility shifts over to the next circle which includes his relatives and the rule of “ha’karov, karov kodem” i.e., one’s closest relatives should be given priority in receiving tzedakka (as in redeemer’s of the field).

If family members are unable to help their relative, the responsibility is transferred to the third circle of neighbors and fellow residents of their town, with the responsibility of close neighbors preceding that of the overall residents of the city. And if the townspeople alone are unable to help the poor, responsibility is transferred to the fourth circle, namely, that of society as a whole in the country, as it is written: “When, in a settlement that God your Lord is giving you, any of your brothers is poor…do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7). And it is also written: “To the poor man among you” (Exodus 22:24), those who close to you (‘among you’), precede those who are less close (Baba Metzia 71a).

And if there was a poor person whose family was able to help him, but evaded their duty and did not help, the gabba’ei tzedakka would have to force them to take care of him, and only if they were unable to meet his needs would they give the poor person charity from the public coffers of the city (Sh. A., Y. D., 251:4).

Empowerment of Personal Responsibility

Thus, we find that family, neighbors, and members of the community bore responsibility to help the poor, sick, elderly and frail who were unable to earn a living. But poor people who were able to make a living but due to laziness, negligence and greed had sunk into debt, would be helped to a limited extent, up until the point where if they continued to sink into debt, they would be forced to sell their fields and themselves. Such a position educates people to bear responsibility for their livelihood. In this way, the number of poor declined precipitously.

Choice and Equality

Thus, we find that it is essential for these two ideas to be expressed in parallel. On one hand – responsibility and free enterprise, and on the other, basic equality. From one standpoint, all human beings are created in God’s image, and consequently – one rule for all; from the beginning, lands, which are the means of production, had to have been divided equally. On the other hand, the main expression of God’s image in man is his ability to choose and initiate. If a person works diligently and skillfully, he will profit; if he is lazy, he will lose. How much more so is this true on a spiritual level: If one fulfills the Torah and mitzvot – he will be blessed in the present world, and receive good reward in the Hereafter. But if he chooses to sin – he will not see blessing in this world, and will be punished in the next.

Yovel’s Vision of Equality for Our Times

In the past, ninety percent of people made their living from agriculture. Land was the main means of production, and as a result, dividing it equally formed a basis of equality for everyone. Today, land is no longer the primary means of production, and earning a livelihood is dependent on numerous factors. Nevertheless, it seems we can learn two fundamentals from the mitzvah of Yovel: First, just as the Torah commanded that farmland be divided equally among all, in a similar fashion, we should equally divide other natural resources which God created, including land for construction, water, oil, gas, beaches, radio waves, air, and the sun. Secondly, just as the Torah commanded dividing the means of production equally, likewise, we should attempt to provide education for all young people that will procure for them, as best as possible, an equal opportunity to earn a living from their talents and diligence. With effective planning, these two foundations can be mutually integrated by diverting the money obtained from natural resources towards the best professional education for all.

 

Thus, we will be able to realize the fundamental idea of dividing the land among all of Israel, together with the tikun (correction) made in the return of lands to their original owners in the Yovel. For indeed, granting quality education for everyone also gives the children of poor parents the opportunity to obtain a respectable profession, according to their talents and industriousness.

 

In other words, resources are divided into two groups: the land and all other natural resources; and man, with his talents and knowledge. Thus, we find that Yovel liberates natural resources by way of returning lands to their owners, and human resources in the emancipation of the slaves.

A Proposal to Reduce Gaps between the Wealthy and the Poor in Yovel

Perhaps a further suggestion might be made: Just as in the Yovel the fields returned to their original owners and slaves were released to their homes, there is room to suggest that Torah scholars explore in-depth the structure of modern economy, and consider whether it would be appropriate that in the Yovel year, a certain percentage of accumulated wealth be divided equally, and returned to the public. For in addition to laws designed to prevent monopolies that harm free competition and stifle industry and trade, we should also avoid creating overly large gaps between the extremely wealthy and the remainder of society. This idea also includes a measure of justice, because sound public institutions are what enable the super-rich to become wealthy, and consequently, perhaps it might be fitting that once in fifty years, a portion of their accumulated wealth be distributed once again towards education and public needs. This will not affect the quality of their lives – they will still have hundreds of millions of shekels, but all the same, it will reduce socio-economic gaps among society and provide a more important status to the value of equality, without damaging the personal responsibility of each individual earning a living.

The Light of Yovel

At present, jealousy and competition are needed to a certain extent for the purpose of the world’s existence, so man can learn to bear responsibility for his fate, and conversely, learn not to be manipulative, a liar, and a thief. Rivalry is also needed to create incentives for development and prosperity, as has been explained by capitalist philosophers. Without it, society would sink into moral degeneration, poverty, and scarcity. However, as the light of Yovel is increasingly revealed in Israel, and the higher levels we achieve in Torah and emuna (faith), the need for competition will decrease, until there will be no more necessity for envy and rivalry, and world peace will spread from the Land of Israel to the entire world. This does not mean that an oversimplified equality between the various talents and equal distribution of all wealth and functions will be created, to the point where all living beings will be exactly the same. Rather, each creature will persist in its own character: wolves will remain wolves, sheep will remain sheep; but nevertheless, owing to the abundance of Divine light which will pervade in the world, the Divine light in each and every creature will be revealed, and all will live together in peace. At that time it will become clear that differences between living beings does not cause competition and envy, but on the contrary, creates between them a deep connection of friendship and camaraderie, leading to enrichment, blessing, and reciprocity.

And then, we will fulfill the words of the prophet: “The wolf will live with the lamb; the leopard lie down with the kid; calf, young lion and fattened lamb together, with a little child to lead them. Cow and bear will feed together, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.  An infant will play on a cobra’s hole, a toddler put his hand in a viper’s nest.  They will not hurt or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain, for the earth will be as full of the knowledge of God as water covering the sea… Efrayim’s jealousy will cease — those who harass Yehudah will be cut off, Efrayim will stop envying Yehudah, and Yehudah will stop provoking Efrayim… On that day you will say, “Give thanks to God! Call on his name! Make his deeds known among the peoples, declare how exalted his name is.  Sing to God, for he has triumphed — this is being made known throughout the earth.  Shout and sing for joy, you who live in Tziyon; for the Holy One of Israel is with you in his greatness!” (Isaiah 11-12).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting and informative articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: http://en.yhb.org.il/ 

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