There is a unique law in this week’s Torah portion, that of the Jubilee year. Indeed the word ‘jubilee’ itself comes from the Hebrew word, yovel.
Once every 50 years, Torah tells society to reset itself. Slaves go free, personal loans are cancelled and all land is returned to its historical owners, having been shared equally amongst all families during the times of Joshua.
Whilst Judaism believes in a free market, it is, however, a free market with some caveats.
There is no question in my mind that the ability for human beings to amass wealth is, on the balance of things, a very positive force in the world. As a means of individuals being rewarded in a cause-effect manner for their endeavour, nothing even comes close to money. Of course, however, there are downsides. It fosters greed and superficiality; it can put people at odds with each other and contribute to jealousy. But, on the whole, it’s a very positive force that fosters the growth and development of human society.
So Torah believes in, and promotes, a capitalist system. What Torah aims to avoid, though, is what happened across Europe in the Middle Ages – the development of wealthy landowner ‘haves’ that subjugated the ‘have nots’. A feudal system of lords and serfs that undermined human motivation and hence societal development in Europe for centuries. Torah has a response to this built into its system. Once every fifty years, all land returns to its original owners; slaves are freed; the operating system is, in effect, rebooted and all men are equal once again (Yes, I’m just being honest – the same equality didn’t necessarily exist for women). A wealthy landowner class could never have developed in Israel and so a key safeguard is there against abuse of the free market endeavour.
Torah has never been a fan of socialism. It significantly inhibits human enterprise. But capitalism has its dangers also. For better or for worse, it can produce Robert Maxwells and Harvey Weinsteins. Torah wants all the upsides of a free market, whilst protecting against the downsides. You cannot always have your cake and eat it, but in my mind Torah found a great balance. Donald Trump is an example of a landowner who has been in business for around fifty years. Even if he had started at the beginning of the Jubilee cycle, his property empire would be changing hands over the next few years. I feel that Torah’s system might make such a person poorer. But he would likely be a more Godly human being for it.
Parsha in a Nutshell
The Torah portion begins with the laws of shmita, where the Jewish people are commanded not to plant their fields or tend to them every seventh year. Every 50th year is the yovel, the Jubilee year, where all land returns to its ancestral owners.