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Posts Tagged ‘ownership’

Greetings from the Holy Land. My hiatus from this blog has seen me swept away with many demands on my time, many blessings. The broken keyboard was an invitation to step away from the weekly posts and give myself over to a few months of solid teaching.

And now here I sit, in Jerusalem. Got here Tuesday.

In honor of this place, I want to share with you a terrible secret.

Perhaps the most famous question in all of Torah commentary (posed a thousand years ago by Rashi, the most authoritative of all later interpreters) is “ma inyan shemita etzel Har Sinai?” What’s the idea of the Sabbatical Year together with Mount Sinai?

It’s a good question, considering that the only time the Bible ever tells us explicitly that God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai is in the section outlining the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. So what’s the connection? Why here, of all places?

Far beyond the realms of Torah scholarship, this question has become embedded in broader Jewish consciousness. Years ago a rabbi friend of mine was visiting Israel, and happened to watch an old rerun of Kojak. When one of the characters said, “what’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?”, my friend laughed to see Rashi’s question, verbatim, flash across the bottom of the screen—“ma inyan shemita etzel Har Sinai?” What’s one thing got to do with the other?

As is so often the case, everything. The answer Rashi gives, in the case of the Sabbatical Year and Mount Sinai, is that the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years prove that the entire Torah in all its details was given directly by God to Moses during their meeting on the fiery hilltop. Oddly enough, especially for Torah discussions, where pretty much anything is open for debate, challenge, reevaluation and, especially, irresolution, this answer remains entirely uncontested.

What this means is, it’s a widely if not universally accepted premise within traditional Jewish circles that the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years prove the validity of the entire Torah. This is a serious load to carry. If you have a fraction of a appreciation of what the Torah means within Jewish tradition, you will recognize that to prove the validity of the Torah is to prove the validity of Judaism itself, to prove even the reality of existence and, reasoning back, possibly to prove even God. We say that the Torah preexisted creation, that God looked into it and created the world. According to tradition, the Torah is not a reflection of reality, rather its cause.

What’s interesting though is not Rashi’s uncontested “fact”, but its implications. The centuries of commentators move on from his bold assertion (which is based in very early sources), to question not whether the Sabbatical and Jubilee years prove the authenticity of the Torah, only how. Over the centuries, the discussion on this matter has been rich, layered and profound.

And with this we arrive at our terrible secret, which is really just my attempt at an answer to this thousand year-old question. I decided to write about it yesterday evening, as I was sitting beside David’s Tower within the walls of the old city, watching what I fully expected to be an exceedingly dull, drawn out sound-and-light show, but which turned out to be not half-bad and blessedly brief.

Sitting there, watching the play of colors on the ancient stone walls, I was thinking about triumphalism, and the propensity of some to flaunt possession of this land, this place.

Our tradition teaches us that after the sin of the Golden Calf, in order to renew the covenant (and live), the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years were established as the cornerstones of a system of reward and punishment. With the first covenant, the Torah was entirely free. The second came with responsibilities. The Sabbatical and Jubilee years became our part of the bargain. Keep them, and all would be well; fail, and the consequence is exile, perhaps the gravest of all possible punishments.

At the heart of these two multifaceted commandments is the principle of hefker, ownerlessness. God outlines these laws and says, ki li ha’aretz, “for the earth is mine.” The Sabbatical and Jubilee years are a manifest expression of this deeper spiritual truth. These mitzvot (commandments) call upon us to release indentured servants, allow the earth rest, share all food freely and nullify debts. The essence of everything we’re meant to do and not do during these years is letting go—spiritually and physically.

And this letting go is the terrible secret. We were given this land, this earth, as an inheritance, but to earn it, to merit living here we must let it go. We must give up our sense of unqualified possession and open to a deeper recognition of “ownership” beyond the narrow, human realm. We must awaken to a deeper sense that all that exists, all of creation, is part of something far greater than our specifically human drama.

Why is this so terrible? It speaks to the spiritual irony that the only way to gain what we most want is to relinquish our very grasping for it. What does it mean that to merit this land, this earth we’ve been dreaming of for millennia, we’ve got to let it go?

There is much discussion in the commentaries about the Sabbatical Year’s role as the condition for living in the land. The Torah itself makes this abundantly clear when it says the earth will ‘vomit’ us out for failure to keep the Sabbatical Year. The third to last sentence of the entire Tanach, the full body of our most sacred texts, reemphasizes this by stating that not keeping this commandment was the reason for the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and the cause of our exile.

In the Torah, we’re promised that if we do let go, if we do share this world and keep the commandments of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the earth will naturally provide all we need. We’re promised that we don’t actually have to work so hard, we can slow down, step back and let go, and all will be well.

No human could make this promise, and some interpreters take this to be the foundation of Rashi’s claim for proof of divine origin.

Through linking the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years so intimately with Sinai, the Torah is telling us something very significant about the nature of reality, of change, of peace, justice and freedom. Sinai is the paradigm of collective awakening. It is the moment of shift, when and how we come to God not only as individuals, but together, as humanity. To achieve this fulfillment of our collective potential, we must shift our relationship to the world and ground ourselves in the principle of hefker, letting go of any fixed sense we have of who we are and how the world works. We must relinquish our conception that how things are today—our governments, our economies, our societies and families—are how they are because we are somehow fixed in how we are. To open new doorways of possibility, we must release our narrow sense of who we are and what we are doing here.

Nothing is given. Everything can change in an instant. The Torah is offering us a terrifying glimpse of how that happens. To change the world and find ourselves again standing before Sinai, we must let go completely.

The Jubilee takes this to the ultimate extreme. It is, as I’ve called it, God’s holy reset button, a new beginning. We have the capacity to do just this. But to move from where we are today to where we have the potential to be involves this terrible, divine process of letting go. We cannot enter the Promised Land with our old ways intact. We must, as Joseph, Abel, Eve, Adam and so many of our spiritual masters have done before us, sacrifice our very selves to the service of truth.

It isn’t easy, but no one said it would be. From where we stand, God’s justice seems a terrible price to pay. From the other side, from that world where unity and sharing have replaced enmity and hoarding, it appears the most wonderful gift imaginable.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Yonatan

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I went to a festival the other day. It was ostensibly one of those crunchy-granola, blissed-out, We are One, Earth People, California peace and love fests. What struck me, however, was how much of the fair grounds were given over to commerce. About eighty-percent of the space, it seemed, was taken up by booths with people selling bells, crystals, candles, ways of life, musical instruments, plants, food, pipes of various kinds and an absolute tonnage of clothes. To navigate from stage to stage, one had to negotiate a world on sale.

I’ve been reading an interesting book recently—Salt: a world history. It’s reminding me, in great detail, of how much our world has been shaped by people striving to sell things. It’s such a central feature of our way of life I don’t know why it should seem strange to me, but it does. I’ve lived in and been the beneficiary of a capitalist society all my life, but I can’t help feeling that we’re off the mark somewhat. Not entirely, but somewhat.

It brings to mind the story of Kain and Abel. The Bible is pretty terse with the narrative of these two brothers, leaving out a whole lot of details. It mentions only that they both offered sacrifices, that God rejected Kain’s, and that Kain was pissed and killed his brother. But that’s just about it. The murder itself gets only one line: ‘And Kain spoke to his brother Abel when they were in the field, and Kain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.’ That’s it.

There’s an ancient midrash, oral account, that fleshes out this story, helping us to understand the nature of the world’s first murder by answering the question—what did they talk about? “‘Let us divide the world,’ they said. One took the land, the other all possessions. The first said, ‘the land you are standing on belongs to me.’ The other replied, ‘the clothes you are wearing are mine. Strip.’ The other countered, ‘fly’. After this, Kain rose up and killed his brother Abel.”

Our system for wealth generation may seem pretty sensible, but unchecked it has some deep flaws. Just consider some of the things we’re willing to sell to make money. One of the clearest cases of excess is what one New York Times journalist called, “perhaps…one of President Bush’s most lasting legacies.” He was referring to massive arms deals that were pushed through in the last years of the Bush presidency. In a three-year period, from 2005 to 2008, US government weapon sales abroad increased almost threefold, from $12 to $32 billion. Major beneficiaries of this trade were, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan. But the deals were far from limited to these two titans of stability. The windfall also piled great drifts of “tanks, helicopters and fighter jets [and] missiles, remotely piloted aircraft and even warships” on the shores of such secure, dependable, sure-to-never-let-things-get-into-the-wrong-hands countries as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Romania and Georgia.

When a man came to the Chofetz Chaim, the great ethicist, and asked how he could make amends for all of the bad things he had said about other people, the Chofetz Chaim cut open a pillow, went to the window and scattered the feathers on the wind. ‘When you’ve collected all the feathers and put them back in the pillow,’ he told the man, ‘you will have repaired all the damage.’

In selling weapons around the world, we’re scattering feathers that kill. To do so, we employ a bizarre logic that isn’t all that dissimilar from the logic we use to support our consumerist way of life. Our economic model is based on a premise of self-interested competition; in tandem with this, we act without considering all of the long-term consequences, the true costs. One senior Pentagon official justified the increase in arms sales simply by asking, “Would you rather they bought the weapons and aircraft from other countries?” No. But is that the only other option?

Pursuing self-interest, without considering the consequences over time, can be disastrous. It is the cause of our current economic meltdown.

Unchecked competition and consumption can act like a cancer, destroying its host organism and, ultimately, itself. This is at the root of Alan Greenspan’s revelation, after years of being one of its lead champions, that capitalism in its current incarnation may not function in a stable, healthy, rational manner. This is why, as he told Congress, he was in a “state of shocked disbelief” to discover “a flaw in the model that [he] perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” That flaw, simply put, is that self-interest alone is not a sufficiently reliable governing principle to ensure the proper functioning of an economy, not a sound enough ideology on which to establish a society’s wellbeing.

One of the deepest insights of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) is that self-interest must be balanced not only against the interests of others, but also against something much greater. In biblical speak, this greater thing would be the divine. On our plane, the Torah proposes we accomplish this by balancing our competitive self-interest against time. With the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the Torah encourages us to make episodic corrections that take the edge off ballooning inequities and allow our overall organism (the earth and all its creatures, including us) to recalibrate. Indeed, it could be argued that the market corrections we currently experience every seven years or eight years are a direct reflection of the Torah’s inherent wisdom in this regard. The corrections we face now, however, are involuntary. If we took it upon ourselves to correct the disparities in our system, by periodically adjusting for accumulated inequities and other harmful consequences, it’s entirely possible that we could avoid these financial hiccups and, more importantly, the economic tsunamis that occasionally follow in their wake.

Ultimately, though commerce carves and shapes our world, we are still only selling our own planet back to ourselves. One of the key underlying lessons of the story of Kain and Abel is about interdependence. Each brother could not thrive without the other; they both needed what the other produced. That’s how an organism works. When the accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself, unchecked, we divorce that growth from the bedrock reality of our world. Money becomes abstract. We can print more, but that doesn’t make the planet a bigger place. Our own accumulation also doesn’t ensure the wellbeing others. In fact, it often diminishes it. Living in a world where a tiny percentage of the people control the lion’s share of resources is simply evidence that we still don’t comprehend the true nature of life. It demonstrates that we’re not thinking like an organism.

So what’s the alternative? We learn to live with what we have, to slow down, take a step back and let go of our accumulation; we learn to share this planet more equitably. This probably sounds overly simplistic and idealistic, but it may just be the most difficult, rational thing we could ever do.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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