Light from the Sidra

B'har ('In mount [Sinai]') 15th May 2015. 27th Iyyar 5775

Torah: Leviticus 25:1-26:2. Haftarah: Jeremiah 32:6-27.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Paid on the nail

Last Friday, the day after the UK General Election, a friend of mine was in a Garden Centre in the Midlands and overheard a customer boasting that the luxury gazebo on which he had just splashed out £50,000 was to celebrate the result of the election. He estimated that if the opposition party had won he would have had to pay fifty grand extra in tax, so he decided to blow the money he would have paid in tax next year on a luxury garden shed. Nice work if you can get it.

I’m no economist but I wonder what the reaction would be if a respected economist suggested that the nations of the world and the banks, building societies and mortgage lenders all agreed to cancel all outstanding debts. Fat Cat bank bosses would probably splutter on their Bollinger La Grande Année Brut that such a move would result in total financial meltdown. Harvard Business School professors would respond that no credible economist has ever suggested such a radical and naive approach before. Credit company shareholders would be up in arms. And what would the reaction be if it was argued that the exercise be repeated twice a century!

Every fiftieth year in Israel was to be a Yuval, a Jubilee Year, when the land was left fallow and nothing was sown or harvested. Men, women, slaves, servants and domestic animals were to be granted a year-long holiday. In fact, as the 49th year was a Sabbath year, farmers and their hired hands were to have a two-year break from work. Debts were to be forgiven, land that had been sold had to be returned to the original owners. No other nation in antiquity ever had such an arrangement.

This raises an interesting question for those who reject the Tanakh as a collection of folk tales. If HASHEM did not ordain the Sabbath-year regulations, who did? The ancient Israelites were not stupid. The regulations of Leviticus 25 are the most counter-intuitive rules for economic and agrarian policies that can be imagined. What other nation – ancient or modern – has ever enacted such arrangements into their national law-code? In a region in which you were always one failed harvest from starvation, why would you risk the existence of the nation for one year, let alone two, trusting that your God or gods would miraculously provide for you?

HASHEM was calling Israel to trust him, as did Jeremiah when he redeemed his cousin’s plot of land. Jeremiah had prophesied that the Babylonians would soon conquer Judea and Jerusalem and deport the inhabitants for seventy years. By purchasing the property of his cousin, the prophet was testifying to the faithfulness of God. The people had failed to keep the Sabbath regulations and while the people were in exile the land would keep its Sabbaths. Jeremiah’s purchase of property was therefore not a declaration of double-mindedness. On the contrary, he redeemed the land of his cousin out of conviction that HASHEM could be trusted to bring his people home after the unobserved Sabbath and Jubilee years had been fulfilled, as we learn from Leviticus 26: ‘I will make the land desolate… And you I will scatter among the nations… Then the land shall be appeased for its sabbaticals during all the years of its desolation, while you are in the land of your foes; then the land will rest and it will appease for its sabbaticals. All the years of its desolation it will rest, whatever it did not rest during your sabbaticals when you dwelt upon her’ (Leviticus 26:32-35).

The Tanakh ends with the observation that the exile took place ‘in fulfilment of the word of HASHEM spoken by Jeremiah, until the land would be appeased of its Sabbatical years — all the years of its desolation it rested, to the completion of seventy years’ (II Chronicles 36:21).

The Rambam believed that Solomon’s temple was destroyed and the Jews carried into captivity at the end of a sabbatical year to endure seventy years in captivity due to the neglect of seventy sabbatical years (Hilchot Shemitah v’Yovel, 10:3).

It should be clear that God was calling Israel to trust him and, indeed, to be like him, keeping the Sabbath as he had done after creating the world in six days. Israel did not observe the Sabbath years and the Jubilees. Adam and Eve, in the Garden, failed to trust HASHEM and disobeyed him. As a result they were exiled from the Garden until ‘the seed of the woman’ should redeem their descendants. Israel, whom HASHEM called to be his faithful son and servant, also failed to trust God and rebelled against his commandments and were exiled as a consequence.

Now, if HASHEM’s commands to Israel concerning the cancellation of debts is a call to be like him, HASHEM must be willing to forgive our debt of obedience to him. Isn’t it astonishing then that so many people – not just Jewish people –think they must make themselves worthy to be forgiven their sins? How can a debtor become worthy to be forgiven of a debt? If you are in debt you must either pay off the debt – in which case you are no longer a debtor – or you throw yourself on the mercy of the person to whom you are in debt and hope he will forgive you.

That is why, at the end of the Day of Atonement, for example, most Jewish people admit that they don’t know if their names are in God’s Book of Life. That’s because they have spent ten days trying to make themselves fit to be forgiven, which is a contradiction in terms. How could a penniless person make themselves fit to be forgiven what they owe? Not by trying to scrape together money from the backs and sides of their sofas.

HASHEM forgives freely because he delights in mercy. The wages of sin is death and 2,000 years ago, in an act of infinite mercy and miraculous power, HASHEM came to earth and took upon himself the responsibility for our debt and cancelled it by dying in the place of his people. You might not believe that he did, but don’t you wish it were true? But if it’s not true, what’s left to you? To keep trying to become fit for forgiveness? The first option might seem incredible but the second is impossible.

What do you have to lose? All you need do is repent of trying to make yourself worthy of forgiveness and to cast yourself on the mercy of HASHEM who took on himself the responsibility for sin and paid it off in full. Paid it on the nail!

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