I have never thought of the Torah as a political manifesto. That is, I do not see the Torah as advancing a political system comparable to the type of systems that we see in contemporary society. Nor do I think of Judaism as a religious system that mandates a particular political stance. However, if we were looking for a political vision of society in the Torah, Parashat B’har-B’chukotai is where I would start.
Leviticus 25 offers a vision for the relationship between the individual and community, an approach to resources and the distribution of resources, and an understanding of the limits of ownership and private property. Leviticus 26, one of the two chapters of the Torah known as tochecha (rebuke), follows with a detailed image of what happens when a community fails to live up to its values.
In Leviticus 25, God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites how to live properly in the land where they are journeying:
“Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest…You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard” (Lev. 25:3-4).
In addition to the sabbatical year, when the land is left untilled, every fiftieth year is a jubilee year, a year when ancestral land that has been sold is to be returned to its original owner. When an Israelite buys land belonging to another Israelite, the sale is essentially a long-term lease, with the purchase price calculated based on the number of years until the jubilee.
Further, sales of ancestral land to be apportioned among the tribes of Israel after the conquest of Canaan “must not be sold beyond reclaim (that is, in perpetuity), for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25:23). Although the Torah uses the language of buying and selling, it proclaims that the Israelites do not truly own the land that God is giving them; it is God’s land, and they are God’s tenants. They must treat the land with respect, allowing it to rest, and know that although they may purchase the right to work and live on a piece of property, they cannot own it forever.
These limits on ownership of land extend to the ability to control other human beings. Leviticus 25 goes on to explain the laws that apply to individuals who, facing dire poverty, sell not their land, but themselves. Such individuals sell themselves not as chattel slaves, but as indentured workers, knowing that they will be freed in the jubilee year. Just as the land is God’s, so too are the Israelites; “they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt” (Lev. 25:42).
If we were tempted to dismiss Leviticus 25 as a utopian vision, Leviticus 26 offers us a grim picture of what happens when we place ourselves at the center of the universe, disregarding the claims of other human beings, the land, and God. Leviticus 26 spells out the consequences of ignoring these claims. “I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper…Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit” (Lev. 26:19-20).
The Torah underscores important truths about maintaining a just and humane society and the challenges of communal life. Even in a world where humans desperately need each other for survival, there are individuals who use their power to acquire resources and control other human beings. They believe that power and wealth can insulate them from perceived dangers, such as those posed by the less fortunate, from disease, from the rigors of climate change, even from death itself. People barricade themselves in gated communities, build bunkers to withstand cataclysmic upheaval, and invest in technology that they hope will allow them to preserve their bodies until science finds a way to extend life. But the Torah warns us that if we fail to live up to our commitments, our cities and places of sanctuary will be ruins and the land will be desolate (Lev. 26:31-32).
I want to close this– and my commentaries on the Book of Leviticus – by arguing that the Torah’s vision for holiness and wholeness lies in its insistence throughout Leviticus that Moses, when annunciating the behaviors that God desires, speaks to the entire people. Leviticus is aware that each individual experiences unique moments of joy and gratitude, sickness and pain. But its focus is on the community of Israel. It is the Israelite community that has the capacity for holiness through its collective acceptance of a vision. Whether Israel is guided by a king, by judges, by priests, or by prophets, the Torah’s vision cannot be achieved by leaders alone. Only when individuals see themselves as part of the community, responsible for their own behavior and for the welfare of those around them, can they be am kadosh, a holy people.
If we understand this message, then the Book of Leviticus ceases to be a recitation of sometimes bizarre practices and emerges as a blueprint for bringing the Divine into the world.