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Torah a Bellwether for Economic Equality

May 17, 2012 By:
Rabbi Adam Zeff
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This week's Torah reading has a special Philadelphia connection. It contains the words inscribed on the Liberty Bell: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" (Leviticus 25:10).

The Liberty Bell was originally created to mark the 50th anniversary of William Penn's 1701 Charter of Privileges, and it later became associated with the Declaration of Independence and, still later, with the struggle to abolish slavery leading up to the Civil War. In each of these situations, the quotation from the Torah was interpreted as calling for political liberty for all of the inhabitants of the land -- this land, the United States of America.

In the context of the Torah, however, the meaning of these words is quite different. The Torah is discussing the Jubilee year, an institution intended to address economic -- not political -- inequality. Upon entering the Land of Israel, each family in each tribe was to be given a piece of land of its own, a guarantee of a livelihood. But the vagaries of weather, harvest, and disease could make any family go into debt and even sell its land just to survive.

Any family could, through no fault of its own, quickly go from wealth to poverty; any society so arranged could soon become deeply divided between the haves and the have-nots. That is precisely the opposite of the just society that the Torah has in mind.

So the Torah provides a remedy. Every 50 years, at the Jubilee, the clock is set back to zero. All land returns to its original owners, and all debts are forgiven. No matter how destitute a family has become in the intervening time, at the Jubilee all of its property is returned to it. No one can become permanently poor, and wealth cannot become permanently concentrated in the hands of a few. Every 50 years, absolute economic equality will be re-established.

This moment is so important that the Torah states that it is to be proclaimed on the Day of Atonement with the blast of the shofar, which is the origin of the shofar blast that still ends our Yom Kippur services. It is to this proclamation that the words quoted on the Liberty Bell are referring -- a proclamation of economic equality for all of the inhabitants of the land.

Scholars argue about whether this model of economic equality was ever actually put into practice in ancient times, but the vision it provides is still clear. As the Torah reminds us at many other points, we must do all that we can to reign in economic inequality and to counter the pernicious effects that concentrations of wealth can have on the well-being of society.

The ancient rabbinic institution of tzedakah and the medieval creation of community funds to support the poor are both heirs to this vision, and it is also carried forward in our own times by the work of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and other community institutions, such as the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia.

Despite the good work of these institutions, the vision of economic equality put forth in our Torah portion should still challenge us. We know how far our own society is from fulfilling that vision, as the wide gap between rich and poor continues to grow.

And we have seen the same gap beset the State of Israel, the actual land referred to in the words of the Torah. May those words prod us to greater action, working toward true equality for all.

Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: rabbi@germantownjewishcentre.org.

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