On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: B'har: Social Justice to the Extreme

This week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches about parashat B'har and wonders: what would social justice to the extreme look like, and did the Torah know to teach it thousands of years ago?

Five ways to tune in:


Welcome to episode 18 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, we continue to reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just ten minutes with modern-day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we want to hear what you think, so talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. Or like us at facebook.com/reformjudaism, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches about Parashat B’har, wondering, what would social justice to the extreme look like? And how did the Torah know to teach it thousands of years ago?

This week, we turn our attention to Parashat B’har, towards the end of the book of Leviticus. B’har literally means on the mountain. Har is the word for mountain in Hebrew. B’har means on the mountain-- not just any old mountain, but that Mount Sinai. So these are an extension of the laws that we associate normally with the revelation of Sinai. But these extend to descriptions of how we are to practice a kind of environmental and social justice every single day, but particularly around the cycles of seven.

We have the cycles of years. There are every seventh year, a sabbatical year. So we work six years, and we take the seventh year as a sabbatical year, similar to the six days of the week, taking the Shabbat as a day of rest, a day of regeneration. Now, in the Torah, that seventh year is a day to literally let the land lie fallow, right? To let the land regenerate.

Because the Torah portion tells us it's not our land. You may have paid for it, you may have gone out and worked it, but we're reminded in Parashat B’har, ki li haaretz. God says, it's my land, and you have to care for the land, and the land has to be given a chance to regenerate the nutrients, so that it can continue to be a source of nourishment.

But we also know that there is an economic cycle in the sabbatical year, because there are people who would be giving loans. And sabbatical year was a time when those loans would be repaid. So it was a time to pay attention to the poor, as well as to the well-being of the land.

And there's a powerful teaching in the parashah, which says, ki yamuch achicha, when your brother becomes poor. It doesn't say it in the plural, because as one medieval commentator says, if it says it in the plural, you're going to assume that somebody else is going to take care of that poor person. And it's not going become your responsibility. So the teaching is no, make that your responsibility.

So the jubilee year is the 50th year. Now, I know that all of us have played Monopoly at some point in our life. The jubilee year is like the end of a game of Monopoly. What happens? Well, somebody's got all the hotels. Someone's got all of the houses. Someone's got most of the money.

And normally, that person is feeling pretty good. But at the end of the game of Monopoly, we say, OK, let's divide it back up. Take the hotels, take the houses off. Let's redistribute. Let's make everything even once again.

That was the teaching of the jubilee year, that no matter how much wealth someone might have accrued, how much land, that this was a recipe for social justice in the extreme. That we would reapportion the land according to the tribal holdings, and that the poor would have the same opportunity with the rich. And I know if this came up in one of the presidential debates, I'd bet you a lot of people would feel very uncomfortable.

But this is our Torah teaching us that we now have an obligation to the poor. We have an obligation to create a just society. And part of that just society is that we think about economics, but we also think about the environment. Our tradition demands that we pay attention to the world that God has created, to not treat it like it's ours, but to respect it like it is a gift from God, which it is.

So we think so much about climate change, and environmental justice, and all these different things. In Parashat B’har, they come together-- all these concerns, all these obligations. Yes, these are religious obligations.

And so when the United Nations and other groups say we care from a religious point of view about climate change and environmental responsibility, we say that is our tradition. Work hard, work the land, earn, but then share and regenerate and renew. So no matter where we are in the cycle, we're always at a place where we could see that the society around us always needs to be attended to, to make sure that we're doing the right thing for one another. And that we're taking into account the well-being of the earth, because the earth is simply not ours to just keep mining and mining and planting and harvesting.

There's such a deep wisdom that we practice, and live a kind of religious life that is so attuned to those around us-- to the trees, to the water, to the rivers, to the ocean, to the sun. All of these are part of God's universe. Parashat B’har tells us take care of God's universe. You are stewards. You are here to care for that world and to make sure that all of God's children are nourished and sustained in it.

So this sounds very, very contemporary. And it is very ancient at the very same time. That's the power, that's the beauty of this teaching. So may you all have sabbatical years. Not just those of you who are academics or rabbis or cantors in communities where you get a year to study, and to renew, and to learn. But all of us are in those cycles. And in those cycles, we take care of one another, and the planet. B’har-- that's the highest teaching, for up on top of the mountain. And when we do our work, we will, in fact, not only be on top of the mountain. We'll be on top of the world.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at reformjudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit reformjudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more.

On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l'hitraot