This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.
In his short story “The Lottery in Babylon,” the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges introduces us to a society governed by a secret institution called the “Lottery.” Everything that happens in this society is controlled by lottery. All wealth, all social and personal standing, all punishment, reality itself is controlled by chance. “Like all the men of Babylon,” Borges writes, “I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave. I have known omnipotence, ignominy, imprisonment.” Despite its seemingly fantastic premise, the world that Borges depicts in this story is, in some ways, profoundly representative of the world we inhabit today.
As in the fictional world of the Lottery, many of our circumstances, such as being born into relatively wealthy families that nurture us and allow our innate abilities to flourish, are based on chance and not merit. Just as we are winners in the global “lottery,” there are losers as well. There are people who are born into poverty and, through no fault of their own, will never have the opportunities we have to prosper.
In creating a world that is solely governed by contingency and not justice, Borges forces his reader to question the relationship that exists between one’s personal achievements and one’s ownership over those accomplishments.
For if one becomes a ruler or slave based purely on chance, it is hard to say that one deserves that fate. Likewise, in the real world, if one is prosperous or impoverished because of an accident of birth, it is difficult to say that one deserves to be rich or poor. And if one does not deserve to be either rich or poor, then in what sense can we say that we have a right to wealth? In what sense can we say that our wealth is justly ours?
The Land Belongs to God
Similar to Borges’ story, a central teaching of the Bible is that wealth ultimately does not belong to us. In this week’s portion, God tells the Jewish people that “the land is mine; you are but resident aliens under my authority.” The message here is that God is the originator of all life and all wealth. Therefore, God is the only true owner. Since everything is God’s, our possession of it is temporary at best.
This insight is the core principle animating various laws found in this week’s parashah. Since the land is ultimately God’s, we as Jews must follow certain rules regarding it. For instance, God commands that every seventh year the land shall remain fallow; it shall not be worked. Similarly, God tells the Jews that the land must not be sold beyond reclaim.
This means that if someone sells his inherited field, the buyer must allow the seller’s family to buy it back. Even if the seller’s family chooses not to buy it back, or cannot buy it back because of financial limitations, every fiftieth year the land returns to the seller’s family anyway. We should remember that in the biblical period the land was the generator of all wealth. By giving us only limited control of its use, these laws underscore the Biblical teaching that land, hence wealth, does not belong to us but to God.
Perhaps the Bible’s most radical teaching about land and wealth is that the Jews did not earn it. The Bible records that the land of Israel is to be divided based on divine lots, not based on merit.
The book of Joshua allots several chapters to describing this divine lottery, and the Rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud devote some time to expressing their unease with the unjustness of the divine lottery as an institution. Since it is God who gives the Jews their ancestral plots (which cannot be sold beyond reclaim), it is God who ultimately owns them. Like in Borges’ Babylon, the Jews cannot claim that they have a right to their property.
If all this is correct, then there is a profound dissonance between biblical notions of wealth (whose sentiment is echoed in Borges’ tale) and those at play in America. The American narrative of wealth understands it as the result of ingenuity, hard work, and prudence. By emphasizing the role of the individual in creating and sustaining wealth, this narrative promotes the notion that individuals have a fundamental right to their property and wealth, thus allowing owners the freedom to decide how to spend it.
In the American narrative, wealth is something earned and therefore something to which we are entitled. In the biblical narrative, all wealth is God’s. Because we do not own our property, we are not free to use it as we like–we must follow the laws that govern its use.
As Jews and as Americans we are exposed to multiple and, at times, conflicting narratives. This week’s parashah forces us to grapple with this dissonance. Which narrative of wealth should we embrace? If we embrace a biblical notion of wealth which implies that all wealth is not ours, how will this influence the way in which we spend our money? Are we free to buy whatever we desire or are we obligated to help and sustain those who, through accident of birth, are less fortunate than we are?