Is G-d a Social Radical?

And Hashem spoke unto Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto Hashem. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto Hashem. You shall neither sow your field, nor prune thy vineyard. (Sefer VaYikra 25:1-4)

  1. Dividing the commandments into groups

The 613 mitzvot of the Torah can be divided into groups.  There are various paradigms used to group the commandments.  For example, the mitzvot of the Torah are either positive commandments or negative commandments.  A commandment is positive if it is formulated as a positive statement.  An example of a positive commandment is the commandment to respect one's parents.  Another example is the commandment to love Hashem.  Negative commandments identify something that is not to be done.   Examples of negative commandments are the commandment to not perform melachah – creative work – on Shabbat or to not eat the forbidden fats of animals.  Every one of the 613 mitzvot can be assigned to one or the other of these categories.  No commandment can be assigned to both categories.  In fact, Maimonides's Sefer HaMitzvot provides a short description of each of the 613 mitzvot. It also, places each of the mitzvot into one or the other of these two groups.

Another paradigm that is used to categorize the commandments distinguishes between those that are ben adam laMakom and those that are ben adam le’chavero – those that are between man and Hashem and those that are between man and his neighbor.  Mitzvot that are ben adam laMakom address our relationship with Hashem.  These include mitzvot that describe the manner in which we are to observe Shabbat and the commandment to pray each day.  Commandments that are ben adam le’chavero include the commandment to not steal or the commandment to love one's neighbor.

This paradigm is different than the first.  Every commandment can be assigned to either the positive commandment group or the negative commandment group.  It is not as easy to assign every commandment to the category of ben adam laMakom or ben adam le’chavero. Some commandments seem to belong in both groups.  These commandments include components that relate to our interpersonal relationships as well as our relationship with Hashem.

Parshat BeHar includes commandments that establish and govern the Shemitah and Yovel – the Sabbatical and Jubilee – years.  The Sabbatical year is observed in the Land of Israel every seventh year.  During the Shemitah year the land may not be cultivated and the produce that is spontaneously produced by the land is shared by all of the inhabitants.  After seven Shemitah cycles – in the fiftieth year – the Jubilee is observed.  During the Jubilee or Yovel year also, the land may not be cultivated and the spontaneous produce is shared.  However, the observance of Yovel includes other elements that are not included in the observance of Shemitah.  With the onset of the Yovel year all indentured Jewish servants are released.  There is another important element of the Yovel year described in the parasha.

And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. It shall be a Jubilee unto you. And you shall return every man unto his possession, and you shall return every man unto his family. (Sefer VaYikra 25:10)

  1. The Torah’s strategy of land distribution

When the Land of Israel was conquered, it was divided among the tribes of Bnai Yisrael.  Each tribe divided its portion among its families and each family among its members.  When a member passed away, his portion was inherited and divided among his sons.  This process of inheritance and division continued generation after generation.

Of course, sometimes a person sold his portion in the Land of Israel.  He might sell his portion to a member of another family of his tribe or to someone from another tribe.  However, with the arrival of the Yovel all of the land was redistributed to its "rightful" owners.  The land was restored to the descendants of the individual to whom the land was originally awarded.  In short, any sale of land in Israel affected a change of ownership that lasted up to the Yovel.  With the Yovel the land returned to the descendant of the individual to whom it was awarded in antiquity.  This is the final major element of Yovel discussed in the parasha – the periodic and regular redistribution of the land.

Some elements of Yovel clearly deal with our relationship to Hashem.  The prohibition against working the land is an example.  Other elements clearly regulate our relationship with one another.  An example is the Yovel's emancipation of servants.  Yovel does not neatly fit into the category of ben adam laMakom or ben adam le’chavero.   It belongs in both categories.

Is there a message in the Torah’s combination in one mitzvah of elements that address our relationship to Hashem with elements that regulate our interpersonal relationships?  Sefer HaChinuch suggests that there is an important lesson communicated by this combination.

He explains that the mitzvah of Yovel teaches us two important lessons.  It communicates and reinforces the message that the land is not ours.  Hashem entrusts us with the land and we are to remember that He is its only true master.   In the Yovel year, Hashem asserts his ownership over the land.  He commands that it not be worked and that it be redistributed.

And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and settlers with Me. (Sefer VaYikra 25:23)

  1. The land is Hashem’s

Before proceeding further in Sefer HaChinuch's comments, it is important to consider the above assertion.  Land redistribution is not generally regarded as a religiously motivated concept.  It is an idea periodically suggested by social thinkers or political radicals as a means of curing widespread poverty.  It is a strategy for rescuing an impoverished and landless peasant class from endless suffering and servitude.

Sefer HaChinuch does not describe the Torah's redistribution system as a social innovation.  He describes it as an expression of our relationship with Hashem.  As explained in the above passage, we are commanded to redistribute the land as an expression of recognition of its true owner – Hashem.

And if your brother be waxen poor, and his means fail with you; then you shall uphold him: as a stranger and a settler shall he live with thee. You shall take no interest of him or increase; but fear your G-d; that your brother may live with you. You shall not give him your money upon interest, nor give him your victuals for increase. (Sefer HaChinuch 25:35-37)

  1. Social justice founded upon spiritual values

However, Sefer HaChinuch then follows this assertion with an amazing comment.  He explains that the observance of Yovel cultivates justice among the land's inhabitants.  They will respect each other’s ownership of the land and not steal land from one another.  The inhabitants will not even covet one another's land holdings. They will recognize that all comes from Hashem and that His will cannot be violated.[1]

Sefer HaChinuch's reasoning requires extensive consideration to be fully appreciated.  For the purposes of this discussion, a general explanation will suffice.  Sefer HaChinuch maintains that coveting another's property reflects a cognitive error. The one who covets believes that there is no compelling reason for the coveted item to be his friend's rather than his own.  He covets his friend's home because he feels there is some injustice in his friend having a nicer home than his own.  He feels that the home should be his.  He covets his friend's wife because he believes that he deserves her as his wife.  When these feelings are adequately intense they can incite the coveter to wrest possession of the object of desire from his friend.

Sefer HaChinuch treats this as a cognitive error.  Ultimately, Hashem is the owner of all.   He decides on the distribution of the treasures of the world.  Our understanding of why our neighbor has a nice home or a wonderful family is not relevant to the justice of Hashem's distribution.  He gives what He gives to whom He gives and His decision is not subject to our judgment.

Through reinforcing this message, Yovel encourages cognitive discipline. It reminds us that we delude ourselves when we covet.

Now, let us return to the original question.  Is there significance in the Torah's combination within the mitzvah of Yovel of elements that are interpersonal and elements that address our relationship with Hashem?  Sefer HaChinuch is suggesting that there is an important message.  In this mitzvah the foundation of a profound interpersonal concept is found in the spiritual message of the mitzvah.  The mitzvah helps us refrain from coveting and desiring that which is our friend's by reinforcing a spiritual truth.  The world and all within it are Hashem's.

Immediately following its discussion of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years and related mitzvot, the above passages occur. These passages deal with a seemingly unrelated issue. They admonish us to support our impoverished neighbor. We are told to provide him loans and support – interest free. The transition of the Torah from its discussion of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years to a discussion of our obligation to support the poor supports and reflects Sefer HaChinuch’s insight. Why should we support the needy? Why should a person who has means share them with one who does not? The lesson of the Sabbatical and Yovel years is that our wealth is not our own. It is a gift bestowed by its true owner – Hashem. He directs us to share this trust of wealth that He has placed at our disposal. In other words, we are being directed to act not out of kindness and sympathy alone. Divine justice demands that we support this needy person.

[1] Rabbaynu Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 330.