Breaking the Downward Spiral – Behar 5779

We constantly hear about the tremendous disparities in wealth between the ultra rich and everyone else.  Just this morning, the front page article in the Mercury News reported that Elon Musk received $2.29 billion(!) in compensation in 2018.  

Parashat Behar presents an economic system that recognizes the inevitability of wealth disparities, but strives to prevent those disparities from becoming locked in across generations.  In the course of prescribing economic resets every fifty years, the Yovel system abolishes the enslavement of Israelites by their fellow Israelites.

Underlying the concept of the Yovel is God’s ownership of the land.  Humans are entitled to settle and work the land, but at no point are we to be considered its owners.  At the time of the Israelites’ settlement of Canaan, the land was apportioned among the tribes, and further subdivided according to clans and families.  This allotment is meant to be eternal.

A farmer who possesses a field owns the produce that the field yields, but not the field itself.  The Yovel, or Jubilee, occurs every fifty years.  The entire land remains fallow, like in a sabbatical year.  In addition, all land returns to the original owners or their descendants.

The Yovel system recognizes that some landholders will be successful, while others will fail.  In three stages, it describes the gradual descent into poverty of a farmer who is not so fortunate. (Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Continental Commentary.)

In the first stage (25:25-28), a farmer has a bad year and does not have enough money to purchase seed to plant on his land.  He takes out a loan.  Then the crop fails, and he finds himself unable to pay his debt.  He sells part of his land for the estimated value of the number of harvests from now until the Yovel year.  In effect, he has leased the land. If his luck turns around, however, he retains the right to repurchase the land at any time.  Not only that, but his closest relative has an obligation, if he can afford it, to redeem the land so as to keep it in the family to which it was originally apportioned.

In stage two (25:35-38), the farmer has not been able to redeem it, and his crops have failed on his remaining land.  He takes out another loan to pay for seed, and he defaults again.  He now must turn over all of his remaining land to the creditor who owns his debt.  But, he gets to remain on the land as a tenant farmer.  The new owner lends him seed to work the land, and he pays off his debt using proceeds from the harvest.  The creditor is not allowed to charge any interest for the loan.  If the farmer succeeds in paying off the loan, he gets his land back.  If not, it reverts to him anyways in the fiftieth year.

In stage three (25:39-43), things are even worse for the farmer.  His crops have continued to fail and he can no longer feed himself and his family.  In this case, he enters the his creditor’s household as an employee.  He is no longer entitled to any of the profits from the land. But he is not a slave.  The creditor must pay him wages, which the farmer uses to repay his debts.  In the fiftieth year, he goes free and gets his land back.  The creditor is not allowed to treat the farmer like a slave, and is forbidden from mistreating him.

This story of a farmer’s financial decline is quite sophisticated.  It depicts a downward economic spiral in which his options gradually narrow due to increasing poverty and debt. This model of the economic downward spiral has not changed much over the past three thousand years, on both the personal, and macroeconomic level.  When an individual or a nation becomes impoverished, or as is often the case, starts out impoverished, it is almost impossible to rise.

What is unique in the Yovel system, however, is that the farmer retains inalienable rights throughout his decline.  He can repurchase the land at any time.  He does not pay interest on his loans.  He goes free in the fiftieth year.  The Yovel system recognizes that we cannot prevent a person from experiencing bad fortune, whether deserved or not.  But we can have a society and an economy that does everything possible to rehabilitate that person.

The Yovel was not a pipe dream utopia.  It was written to be implemented.  It should come as no surprise to learn that it was never successfully put into practice.  It is a timeless, universal principle that those who have wealth will always resist efforts by others to take it away from them.

That is why we find the prophets constantly complaining about the gross economic inequalities in Israelite society and the crushing burden of debt on those who are least able to handle it. The Book of Proverbs astutely observes that “The rich rule the poor, and a borrower is a slave to a lender.”  (Pr. 22:7)  It is as true now as it has always been.

But there are some positive developments taking place that are attempting to break the downward spiral. One of the ostensible purposes of the criminal justice system is the rehabilitation of those who have broken the law.  At all levels, we are terrible at it.  Recidivism rates, the likelihood that someone released from prison will return, are over 60%, which is unacceptably high.  There are many factors.

One important correlation is that prisoners who are able to gain employment after release are less likely to commit crimes in the future.  But of course, the stigma associated with being a former criminal makes it extremely difficult to get a job.  Thus, the downward spiral continues. with no Yovel to break the cycle.

The bipartisan First Step Act, which the President signed into law in December, aims to address this problem by creating more incentives for prisoners to undergo job training while in prison so that they will be better prepared to enter the work force right away.  Time will tell if it will make a difference.

Another increasing problem is the student debt crisis.  Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, a number which has risen disproportionately over the past decade.

A person who is saddled by debt before even entering the work force is going to have a much harder time getting ahead than one who is not.  A young adult who graduates with debt delays achieving life milestones like getting married, having children, and purchasing a home.  The pressure of debt limits the choices and risks that a person can take.

Last week, billionaire investor Robert F. Smith made a surprise gift to the graduating class of Morehouse College, a historically black men’s liberal arts college in Atlanta.  “We’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” he pledged as he announced that he would pay off the student loans of this year’s entire graduating class.

This is especially significant because African American college students graduate with greater amounts of student debt than any other group.  In addition, over the course of a career, an African American worker with a college degree can expect to earn close to a million dollars less than his or her white counterpart. 

In making his generous gift, Robert F. Smith is betting that these graduates will have an easier time getting started on their careers, and will, over the long run, achieve greater success and contribute more to the economy and their communities, and will be able to pass along more opportunities to their children in the next generation.

These two developments, which remove barriers to getting ahead, will make a difference in  thousands of lives.  One is a change in government policy that aims to break the cycle of crime.  The other is an inspired action by a private citizen to give a push forward to an entire class of new graduates. But there is so much more that could be done at every level to relieve the pressures that hold people back.

The Yovel‘s system of wealth redistribution would have significantly flattened the wealth disparities between the well off and the struggling, and would have ended multi-generational poverty.

It didn’t work.

But it does inspire us with a vision of how to treat each other with dignity, how to remove barriers that prevent people from succeeding, and how to break the downward spiral of debt and poverty.

Don’t Take Time and Space for Granted – Ki Tavo 5778

The universe is inconceivably big.  It has a diameter of 91 billion light years.  In miles, that is approximately 54, followed by 22 zeros.  The universe is comprised of between 100 and 200 billion galaxies.  Our Milky Way Galaxy has about 100 billion stars.  The closest star to the earth is a little bit more than four light years away.

Planet Earth has a number of rare features that have made the development of life possible.  Moving tectonic plates enable the formation and maintenance of an atmosphere.  The climate is not too hot and not too cold.  The moon is unusually large, blocking just enough solar radiation to allow genetic mutation to occur at a reasonable pace.  Earth’s orbit around the sun is pretty close to circular.  The sun itself is larger than most stars, and smaller than others.  In so many ways, the earth is “just right.”

The earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago.  Life came into existence around 4 billion years ago.  More than 99% of all species that ever lived on Earth are now extinct.  Homo Sapiens emerged about 300,000 years ago.  Our ancestors began to develop modern ways of thinking, reflected by the use of complex tools, cave painting, big game hunting, and ritual burial.

3,800 years ago, Abraham heard the voice of God blessing him with the promise of land and offspring.  3,300 years ago, Moses led our people out of slavery in Egypt to the land of Israel.  Solomon built the Temple.  It was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again over the next thousand years, sending our ancestors into exile.  That exile ended in 1948, and here we are…

…residing in the most prosperous country in the history of the planet, and for all we know, the universe.  Here in Silicon Valley, we have a perfect climate.  We have air conditioning.  In about 45 minutes, we will sit down to have lunch together, and there will probably be enough food for us to go back for seconds and thirds.

How incredibly unlikely it is that each one of us is here right now.

Is there an appropriate response to the unfathomably minute possibility of my existence?

If such a response exists, I am not sure what it is.

We humans have a built-in tendency to take our lives for granted.  This is one of Moses’ concerns as he prepares to make his final goodbyes to the Israelites, whom he has led for the previous forty years.  Over the course of Deuteronomy, he has been delivering his final series of instructions to those who will be entering the Promised Land without him.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses lays out a few ritual ceremonies that the Israelites will have to observe.

The first of those ceremonies will not be performed by the generation that stands before him.  True, they will enter the land, but it will take several more generations until their descendants complete its conquest, and even longer before they build the Temple.

That is the time to which Moses refers.  Israelite farmers will plant their seeds and harvest their crops.  When the first fruits of those crops come in, the farmer will place it in a basket and bring it to the Temple in Jerusalem, identified by Moses as “the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name.”  The farmer will present the fruit to the priest on duty and make a declaration:

I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.”  (Deut. 26:3)

The priest will take the basket from him, and the farmer will continue:

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us . . . and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt . . . He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.  (Deut. 26: 5–10)

This speech integrates themes of agriculture with history.  This is one of the great theological innovations of the Torah: God is both the Creator of the natural world, as well as the God of history.

We see this throughout the Torah, as the various agricultural holidays are infused with historical significance.  Passover, the Spring festival to celebrate the beginning of the agricultural season, is also the holiday celebrating freedom from slavery.  Succot, the Fall harvest festival, also commemorates the booths that our ancestors dwelt in while they were in the wilderness.

This is what Moses wants to ensure that future Israelites will remember.  He wants future Israelites to know:  My ancestors were once slaves in Egypt.  God brought them out, enabling me to be born in freedom.  I am here now because of God’s promise to my ancestors.  Without them, I would not be in this land, this land that is so prosperous that it flows with milk and honey. 

Notice that the farmer never makes any reference to all of his hard work: the early mornings planting and weeding; the backbreaking labor; the difficult journey from his home to the Temple.  That is not the point.  The point is for him to acknowledge everything that has happened to bring him to this blessed moment.  

Moses knows that future Israelites will have a tendency to take two things for granted.  One, that he lives in a fortuitous time period.  Two, that he lives in a fertile place.

In other words, Moses worries that the farmer will take time and space for granted.

It is not just ancient Israelite farmers who tended to take their existence in time and space for granted.  We all do.  When we are successful, we tend to overweight the impact of our own hard work and underweight the countless factors outside of our control that made our success possible.

The purpose of much of Jewish ritual is to alert us to the many blessings that we enjoy.  In our daily prayers, we acknowledge God as the Creator of the universe, the heavenly bodies, and the daily rising and setting of the sun and moon.  

We acknowledge the incredible way in which the human body is put together.  We give thanks for knowledge and understanding.  We praise God for moments of our ancestors’ redemption, without which we would not be alive.

Before eating a piece of bread, we recite a blessing indicating that it is God who “brings forth bread from the earth.”  Even though this is not literally where bread comes from, we remind ourselves of the many natural miracles that must occur so that human beings can produce food that is delicious and nutritious.  

People who express gratitude are happier, and experience life as more meaningful.  I suspect, as well, that those who are conscious of how undeservedly blessed they are tend to behave towards others with more generosity and compassion.

So, is there an appropriate response to the unfathomably minute possibility of our existence?  Let’s start with simply trying to acknowledge it:

The universe has conspired to bring me to this moment in time and space.  And for that I am grateful.