The American narrative and the biblical narrative offer conflicting approaches to wealth and material gain.
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.