Yom Kippur Morning: The Torah Demands Equality

Yom Kippur calls us to action, as we read in the powerful haftarah from Isaiah:

this is the fast I desire:

To unlock fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry,

And to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him,

And not to ignore your own kin.(Isaiah 58:6 & 7)

The concern for those in need was the focus of the prophets at all times. And it was not theoretical, or voluntary. The Torah mandated specific ways of making sure that every member of the community had their basic needs met, such as leaving the corners of your fields unharvested, so that those in need could gather.

Last week, I spoke about Shmitah, the year of release that the Torah commands for every 7th year, and its call to let the earth and ourselves rest.

But Shmitah is not only about rest. It is not solely about letting the land lie fallow and getting a break from the work of agriculture. It was one of the ancient methods of assuring that the vulnerable have what they need, and further, it was about repairing inequality.

A key aspect of the Shemitah year is Shmitaht kesafim, “release of monies:”

Every seventh year you shall practice release.… every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his friend or relative, for the remission proclaimed is of the Eternal. (Deut 15: 1-2)

In this remarkable passage, the Torah directs us to surrender any and all

financial claims we have against others in the Shemitah year.

The Torah anticipated that we would be hesitant about this:

Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy relative and give them nothing….Give to them readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Eternal your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. (Deut. 15: 9-11)

Release of debts was to happen every 7 years, and every 7 cycles of 7 years, the Torah says:

You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to their holding and each of you shall return to their family. (Leviticus 25:10)

This return is not just for a family reunion. It is a redistribution of wealth. In an agricultural society, land was wealth. The return to their holding meant that as the people returned, the land would go back to ownership of the original tribe and clan. People could buy and sell and amass wealth (or lose it) for 49 years, but then it would revert. The wealthy would give up everything extra they had accumulated during the previous cycle, and the poor would get back the solid life they had lost.

This redistribution has been on my mind and heart for months now, as I and heard and read about the economic impact that COVID has had on so many people. So many people lost jobs or had to leave them due to not having childcare. 15% of our neighbors in Nassau and Suffolk counties are behind on their rent. And many of these people are those caring for us: it’s the service jobs that were lost during the shutdown and beyond, not the white-collar workers who could work from home. If we are not in office buildings, they don’t need so many janitorial staff. If we’re afraid to sit near someone we’re not getting our hair cut or our nails done or going to the movies or sitting inside restaurants. The coffee shop near the Huntington train station closed this year – no commuters, no morning coffee. Just one of many losses.

I have been so worried about what will happen to these families if they are evicted. While I am grateful that the eviction moratorium has been extended to January, and also that it is a priority of our new governor to make sure that the Emergency Rental Assistance Program established to support those in need will actually get to them and their landlords, it does not solve the basic problem: that so many people live on the edge.

Shmitah was designed to fix that. It’s a radical system. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Zionist political thinker, wrote that:

“The Shmitah/Jubilee idea…aims that society should, periodically, institute a great fundamental social revolution; that it should equalize all classes; that it should take from the wealthy and give to the destitute.”

But it is not communism: Jabotinsky continues: “after such a revolution, every man is free to start anew his social battle, free again to aspire, to utilize his energies and talents according to his desire. …This concept of repeated economic upheavals is an attempt to correct the ills of economic liberalism, not to forestall them. Quite on the contrary, this concept is clearly based on the conviction that free economic competition is one of the most powerful motivations in life. Let people struggle, lose and win.

It is only necessary to cushion the arena with soft grass, so that whoever falls will not be too painfully injured. This cushion is the Sabbath [and Shmitah], the gleanings, the tithes, all the various means by which the State takes pains to prevent use from turning into exploitation, and poverty from becoming destitution.”

(The Political and Social Philosophy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky: Selected Writings)

As secular thinker Jabotinsky understood that Shmitah would “equalize all classes,” so, too, did 19th Century German rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer write that “the Torah ordained that all should be equal during the seventh year….” So, for a year, equality, not of “opportunity” but in actuality, in status, wealth, and power would be renewed in the whole society.

Scholars disagree whether the redistribution of land was ever fully carried out. But as an ideal, a goal, and a demand, it has lasted until this very day. Shmitah radically re-imagines how we relate to one another. It asks of us to see ourselves as family, as one people, as connected.

But we are moving further apart. Economic inequality in our country, and around the world, is increasing. In a study published before the pandemic, the Pew Research Center found that:

  • Over the past 50 years, the highest-earning 20% of U.S. households have steadily brought in a larger share of the country’s total income.
  • Income inequality in the U.S. is the highest of all the G7 nations
  • In the U.S., black-white income gap has held steady since 1970
  • The wealth gap between America’s richest and poorer families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016
  • Middle-class incomes have grown at a slower rate than upper-tier incomes over the past five decades

And beyond the US:

If we proportioned down the world’s population to 100 people, fully “50 do not have a reliable source of food and are hungry some or all of the time; 40 do not have access to adequate sanitation; 26 live in substandard housing or are homeless… 19 struggle to survive on $1 per day or less, and 48 struggle to live on $2 per day or less.”

(Statistics are from Daniel G. Groody, C.S.C., “Globalizing Solidarity: Christian Anthropology and the Challenge of Human Liberation,” Theological Studies 69 (2008), pp. 250-268, at pp. 255-256.)

I don’t have an easy solution to this. But I do know that our tradition tells us it is not right. It tells us that equality is our goal, and that structures must be put in place to achieve it. Shmitah is such a structure.

It is difficult to imagine that we might create such a system in our society. But as poet Aurora Levins Morales said: “In order to build the movements capable of transforming our world, we have to do our best to live with one foot in the world we have not yet created.” This is what Judaism invites us to do. To stand in the world that is and envision the world that might be.

Then, as the words of our haftarah proclaim:

Then shall our light burst forth like the dawn/And our waters of healing soon flourish again

Then shall our light shine in darkness/And our darkness shall be like noon

We will be like a well-watered garden,/Like a spring whose waters do not fail.

And we will be called “repairer of bridges, restorer of lanes for living.

Shanah tovah.

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