Parashat B'har

We Are All God's Creatures

One of the Torah's central insights is the ultimate lack of human authority and ownership.

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Our Money is not Our Own

The radical result of this underlying fact is that the Jubilee year does not require one to return that which he has acquired, for in fact he has never truly acquired it and only acts as steward over it to the extent that he follows divine law.

So too, a person's obligation to give tzedakah (often improperly translated as charity) is not an obligation to give ten percent of her income to those who need it. That ten percent was in fact never hers, and she is only entitled to use the remaining 90 percent of what she earns after she has distributed the requisite ten percent. This underlying sense of divine ownership is the basis for the biblical vision of responsibility and transforms our own understanding of obligation.

Our obligation to give ten percent, or to attempt to achieve the radical redistribution described in this week's parashah, then cannot be limited by our own needs or desires (we give ten percent if we have enough left over), but is what defines whether we, in fact, have any moral right to that which we think we possess.  

Every Land and Every People

Despite the surface meaning of this week's parashah, this obligation does not only apply to the land of Israel or to other Jews. Rather Rashi, in discussing why the Torah begins with the creation of the world instead of with the first commandment, argues that it does so in order to make clear that all people on earth, and the entire world itself, are literally creatures, created by God and therefore at God's disposal to do with as God wishes.

When God says "the land is Mine" and "they are My slaves," this is true of every land and every people. This rejection of ultimate human authority is then global in reach, and the equalizing mandated in our parashah operates not only between family units in Israel but between social units the world over, between the Global North and the Global South, and effectively demands a return of the entire world to its primordial equality.

Our challenge, then, as we decide how much to give and how much to contribute is not to consider how much of what we own we can afford to give up, but rather to ask what we must give to be able to say that we have any entitlement, no matter how limited, to what we in fact possess.

Our challenge is to ask this question from the deeper realization that nothing we possess is truly ours. It is all on loan from the Divine which permits our use of it only insofar as we live up to divine responsibilities in that use.

It is this realization, and the actions that flow from it, that truly leads to the liberation of both the giver and the receiver and that allows the possibility that one day we will hear the trumpets blow for the Jubilee to "proclaim liberty throughout the land (Leviticus 25:9-10)."

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Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.