Parashat B'har

Divine Lottery

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

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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.

Divine Lottery

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? 

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Rabbi Ari Weiss

Rabbi Ari Weiss is the Lead Professional at Uri L'Tzedek, and Rabbinic Fellow at The Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU.