Income inequality has been in the news a lot over the past few years, with the Occupy Movement popularizing the idea that the wealthiest 1 percent of society has left most Americans – even many who are relatively well off – far behind. An increasing amount of money resides with fewer and fewer Americans; for example, the Walton family that owns Walmart holds as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of Americans. As this gap grows, it is important to recognize that more is at stake than a vanishing dream of prosperity. The real danger, as the wealth gap is combined with stagnant wages, is the creation of a permanent underclass, deeply in debt to afford the basics of life, who cannot work their way out of poverty because that kind of success is so far away.
This week’s parsha, Behar, addresses many of these structural problems of entrenched inequality through its discussion of both the shemita (the seventh year of release) and the yovel, the year of jubilee. These two regular events were an economic rebalancing of Israelite society. Property that had been sold was returned to its original owners, reflecting God’s true ownership of the land, with human beings as transient caretakers (Leviticus 25: 23). Debts were released and people who had sold themselves as indentured servants were released. Through the recovery of either their land or their personhood, the poor could not permanently give away the very foundations of their ability to support themselves, even if temporary poverty bound them to another.
Today, the shemita has real implications for agriculture in Israel, but for the rest of the Jewish world, is entirely a theoretical concept. Jewish environmentalists have taken up the mantle of shemita and yovel to discuss the sacredness of the earth. But the economic justice message is equally critical. We cannot allow either our fellow citizens or the vulnerable strangers who reside among us to become so permanently impoverished that they lose their futures. “For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude,” says God (25:40). No human being can become permanently dependant on another human through economic misfortune. It is then incumbent upon the society in which the poor reside to carry out this sacred mission of justice.
The Torah is realistic that poverty is a reality of human society; indeed, in the discussion of the shemita that we see later in Deuteronomy, we are torn between the utopian possibility that “there shall be no needy” (15:4) and the truth that “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land” (15:11). But the solution to this is not simply more tzedakah: While critically important as a stopgap, charity alone is not enough to solve permanent indebtedness.
You cannot donate your way to a more equal society, but you can, as Behar shows, act proactively about one of the root causes of inequality in mitigation of debt. Today, the Jubilee Movement has urged wealthier nations to cancel the debts of countries in the Global South, so that they spend the money on the needs of their citizens. Here at home, we see, for example, debt forgiveness programs, relief for under water mortgages, and regulations that ensure that legal foreign workers do not arrive deeply in debt to their employers.