This week and next, my friends, comes the last exchange on Sinai — and it’s a goodie. The Israelites are getting ready to leave the relative safety of the mountain and go off into the desert with the tabernacle (etc.), a new set of rules & regs, and God’s fire and cloud leading the way. But before they go — one more detail: the Yovel (Jubilee). The Sabbath writ large on the land. Every 7 years, the land must rest from growing. Every 7 years, we will be fed (if we follow the holy path laid down for us ) by a particularly good harvest in year 6. And after 7 cycles of 7 years, everything is up for grabs. All slaves will be freed (unless they’re not Hebrews). All men (sigh) will be returned to their hereditary property. Debts will be forgiven. The land will get an extra year of rest.
And why are we to do this? Because this isn’t our land. We’re just tenants on God’s good green Earth. And the land – particularly that which under our feet in the promised acreage of Israel – must be treated with respect.
My teacher and friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls the Yovel is a “karma-stopper.” Whatever bad baggage you brought in, you get a chance to refresh, both individually and as a society. That is why the Yovel began on Yom Kippur with a blast of the shofar. Further, Reb Arthur asks us to consider the following:
Annulling debts only seems “unjust” if one starts from a place in which property is really, and is intended to be, “private.” That is, Shimon really does own his money. But that is not the Torah’s sense of justice. For the Torah, God owns Shimon’s money. God has lent it to Shimon. So it would be profoundly unjust for Shimon to refuse what God wants — for Shimon to give God’s money to Reuven when Reuven needs it more.
This is not a system aimed at “economic development” — at least the kind of explosive development the world has seen in the last hundred or 200 years. Much slower growth, as pausing for one whole year out of every seven would suggest.
The main value was not the rapid expansion of wealth — it was the BALANCING of work and rest, wealth and sharing.
In other words: everything you have, own, or have worked for is really just on loan. Your crops, your land, your wealth & privilege, your very life.
Speaking for myself: sometimes this is really difficult to remember. Small kids complain about having to share their stuff with siblings — even though their parents paid for every last drop of it. Bigger kids (otherwise known as adults) complain about having to pay taxes, i.e., give “their” money to someone else as if they live in isolation. Even bigger kids (otherwise known as corporations) feel that they should be able to keep all the profits from selling goods & services made by the sweat of someone else’s brow. As for me — there’s plenty I’m attached to, good fortune I’ve accumulated for no good reason save dumb luck.
It’s a radical notion, this resting every 7th year and starting all over again. To go back to where you were 7 years ago. For some that means giving up good stuff and for others, it means going free. No wonder it didn’t last.
Many years ago I wrote a poem for a friend on his 50th birthday, his Jubilee as it were. Here’s the poem. I hope it pertains.On the morning of your birthday, as you cradle lukewarm coffee and the lavender fog wraps its fingers around your sleep-deprived throat, wish for what you do every year— Rest. Not your own, oh no, not your own, but the world’s. On this morning of seven years times seven, imagine it— The quieting of hatreds, abolition of barbed wire, orchards of plenty and crazy signs of peace. We have been here before, you and I, on a tired and fog-soaked morning, so I offer you only what I can: A knowing glance and a fresh cup before dawn. And when your faded black sneakers caress their fiftieth turn around our stretch of picket line, words form in your throat, whispering a familiar melody of redemption. We shall not, we shall be moved… Friend, let us hallow this year with our footsteps. Let us hallow it with our hoarse and insufficient words, ask for blessings we may not deserve and make music in the shadow of freedom.