Man is unique in his freedom of choice and responsibility that comes with it, therefore, it is appropriate he should have exclusive right to his own property * Beside this value, stands the importance of equality, reflected in the return of land in the Jubilee year, and the opportunity given to start afresh *Man’s sense of gratitude for the blessing in his work, should be expressed in charitable giving * The circles of support expand from the inner circle of those close, to the remote, but in today’s global world, human responsibility is also growing
God created man in His image. The main expression of this, is man’s ability to choose, think, plan, and initiate, and as a result, he has a responsibility for his actions – if he chooses good, he will benefit, and so will the world; if he chooses bad, it will damage him, and the world. Just as a person has responsibility for his actions, so too, he has the right to enjoy the work of his hands, talent, and the blessing of God in his actions. This right creates ownership, and therefore, what one creates by using his talent and labor – belongs to him, as well as what he buys with money that he earned honestly, or received honestly from his parents, belongs to him.
Equality in the Division of the Land of Israel
In addition to the importance of freedom of choice, responsibility and property rights, seeing as God created all human beings in His image, the importance of equality also emerges. And since all the world belongs to God, and God promised the Land of Israel to the People of Israel – he commanded to equally divide all inheritance of the Land to all of B’nei Yisrael who left Egypt. In the past, over ninety percent of people made a living from agriculture, in other words, land was the main means of production, and its equal distribution created an equal basis for all (Peninei Halakha: Shevi’it ve’ Yovel 10:5).
This equality does not extend proportionately to all Jews, rather, the principle of equality in dividing the Land applies to the Israelites who suffered in Egypt, namely, that each one of them is entitled to an equal share in the Land. Overall mutual responsibility as well, such as enlisting in the army and paying taxes applies to the nation’s individuals, and not to people of other nations. And when it comes to an individual’s own inheritance, equality is implemented between his children, and not among other relatives.
Yovel (Jubilee Year)
After the Land was divided equally to all of Israel, those who chose well, worked diligently in their fields, raised several crops, and became wealthy. Those who chose badly were drawn after lust and laziness, neglected their fields, and suffered shortages. If they did not come to their senses and start working diligently, over time, they were forced to sell their fields and their homes, thus, decreeing a life of poverty upon their families as the fields were the main means of production. God had mercy on them, in particular their family members, and instituted the mitzvah of Yovel, occurring once every fifty years, in which we were commanded to return the fields to their owners. And if the seller of the field had already passed away, the mitzvah is to return the field to his heirs. By means of this, the decree of poverty did not chase Jewish families for generations, rather, every fifty years, each family was able to open up a new page, begin acting responsibly, and escape the cycle of poverty (Peninei Halakha: Shevi’it ve’ Yovel 10:3).
Equality and Property Rights
We find then that the two values, both equality and property rights, are expressed and rely on the creation of man in the image of God. The fact that man has free choice and responsibility for his actions and the ability to maintain and improve the world, necessitates that what he creates or purchase belongs to him. The fact that every human being is created in the image of God, necessitates that all Jews have equal rights and obligations in the division of the Land, and equal rights and obligations in the court of law, as it is written: “There shall be one law for you, for both the proselyte and the native born, for I am God, Lord of you all” (Leviticus 24:22).
Inspiration for Today
Today, however, land is not the main means of production – only about two percent of the Gross National Product comes from agriculture, and therefore, dividing the Land equally would not grant an equal basis for all. Apparently, though, we can learn two fundamentals from the mitzvah of Yovel. First, just as the agricultural land was divided equally to all, likewise it would be proper for us to equally divide the other natural resources God created. This includes land for construction, water, oil, gas, the beaches, radio waves, air, and sun. Second, just as the Torah commanded to equally divide the means of production, we should endeavor to provide all young people an education that will give them, as best as possible, an equal opportunity to earn a living from their talent and diligence.
With effective planning, these two foundations can be mutually incorporated by directing the money received from natural resources to the best possible professional education for each individual. In doing so, we will fulfill the idea of dividing the Land to all Jews, including the tikun (rectification) that will be made by the return of the land to its owners in Yovel. For providing quality education for all, also affords the children of poor parents to acquire a good profession, according to their talents and diligence.
It may also be suggested that just as in Yovel, where the fields are returned to their owners and slaves released to their homes, there is room for Israel’s Torah scholars to examine, in depth, the structure of modern economy, and consider whether in Yovel, a certain percentage of the accumulated wealth be returned, so as to be invested in educational and vocational training systems, and in this manner, once again, be equally divided for all (Peninei Halakha: Shevi’it ve’ Yovel: 11: 9).
The Fairness in Tzedaka (Charity)
Alongside the fact that the Torah reinforced property rights and did not stipulate that all human beings share the fruit of their labor equally, the Torah commanded to help the poor with tzedaka. And even this is justified, for even when a diligent person sees blessing in his labors, he must remember that the earth and rain comes from God, his health and talent is also from God, and the fact that disease did not attack his crops – is from the mercy of God; additionally, the legal system, transportation, and educational system that have an effect on his success, are by the mercy of God, and society. And therefore, it is only just and appropriate for him to give from the blessing he received from God, to those who were not so fortunate. To this end, many mitzvot were established. However, since the property a person earned by working belongs to him – he has the right to choose the poor and the institutions to which he contributes.
Public Responsibility for Tzedaka and Helping Others
As a matter of principle, the responsibility to help the poor rests with his relatives, friends and neighbors. However, in times of need, when the tzedaka that people give of themselves is not enough to satisfy the existential needs of the poor, according to halakha, public leaders must compel the general public to contribute for maintaining the poor. In the framework of a country, the duty is to impose a tax in order to ensure the poor does not lack basic needs. But extreme caution must be taken that the public and the country do not substitute for the responsibility of those close to him because only they are truly able to help him, and public intervention is intended to supplement what they are unable to fulfill.
The Circles of Responsibility
The principle of the obligation for giving tzedaka and helping others is that the rich in the world do not have a shared responsibility to help all the of poor the equally, rather, the responsibility extends in expanding circles: in the first circle is the family; after this, friends and neighbors; then, people of the city; after that, the people of the country; and then, all of humanity.
Thus, we have learned concerning tzedaka and loans, that it is the responsibility of every person to first help his relatives, then his friends and neighbors, then his fellow city dwellers, and then, all his countrymen (M.B. 71:1; S.A., Y.D. 251:3).
Circles of Equality
The value of equality also appears in circles: when we are commanded to divide the Land, the division is for Jews only, and not for all of humanity. For the duties and rights are interrelated; therefore, someone who takes responsibility for upholding his Israeli identity, and accordingly, for preserving the army and paying taxes, is entitled to share the Land equally.
This holds true in a family as well. Inheritance must be divided equally, without discrimination (Baba Batra 133b; S.A., C.M. 382). But a neighbor, or even a cousin, does not have the right to share with family members equally.
The Status of Gerim (Converts)
The status of gerim is special among Jews. On the one hand, we do not try to persuade Gentiles to convert, and on the other, those who want to convert honestly, are accepted, and we are commanded to love them exceedingly, and to be extra careful about their honor (Peninei Halakha: Ha’Am ve’ Ha’Aretz 10:1).
As for the inheritance of the Land, gerim who joined the Jewish nation after the Exodus from Egypt were not entitled to inherit the Land, since they did not suffer with all of Israel in the terrible bondage in Egypt. Responsibilities and rights are bound together.
In the future as well, those gerim who joined the Jewish people while Jews were suffering, and join in bearing the burden of Israel’s existence and security – will settle the Land together with the Jews equally, as it is written: “This is the territory you are to divide among the tribes of Israel. You are to divide it by lot as an inheritance both to you and to the foreigners (gerim) living among you who give birth to children living among you; for you they are to be no different from the native-born among the people of Israel — they are to have an inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel. You are to give the foreigner an inheritance in the territory of the tribe with whom he is living,’ says Hashem Elokim” (Ezekiel 47: 21-23). And once again, for responsibilities and rights go hand-in-hand.
The Reward for Treating Gerim Favorably
When the Jewish people accept gerim with love and respect, they merit blessing. First of all, Moshe Rabbeinu, who married a convert, and after that, when her father, Jethro, sought to convert, the Israelites accepted him with respect, and by doing so, received his good advice written in the Torah portion ‘Yitro,’ named after him.
Boaz, as well, married Ruth the convert, and in the merit of this, a brave and righteous man, King David, was born to them, and he is the founder of the royal dynasty in Israel. In addition, Rabbi Akiva, the greatest Sage of Oral Torah, was a descendant of gerim.
The Expanding Circles of Responsibility
It is worth adding, that as ties between nations and peoples grow stronger, so does the responsibility for the benefit of all human beings. For the responsibility to help depends on the degree of connection between people. Therefore, a person’s commitment to his family is greater, because they are more connected to him. And the obligation towards friends and neighbors is greater than to unfamiliar people. And the obligation to the people of one’s own nation, is greater than the duty to another people. This is especially true among Am Yisrael, for the ties between all Jews are very deep, and have stood the test of our long exile to the four corners the world.
Today, consequently, when people and nations are becoming increasingly interdependent in information, commerce, science, culture, health, and environmental protection, the responsibility of each individual to humanity on the whole, is broader. Nevertheless, the broadening of the circles does not nullify the inner circles, because upon them, everything stands.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.