Jewish Journal


May 15, 2008

Big Thinking

Parshat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)


In the few courses that I have taken and books that I have read on management, one of the main components of success is the ability to engage in "big visioning" or "blue sky" thinking. By not letting barriers, restrictions or even reality get in the way, we must find ways -- and have leaders who inspire any given group -- to imagine a future of their dreams, a future that looks radically different from the present, a future that can be reached for by all.

Without this kind of big thinking, an organization, family, nation, religion or individual will find itself being left behind, stuck in the rut of the unimaginative. From seminal thinkers like Peter Drucker and Edwin Friedman, we have learned these lessons. And in this week's parsha, I would argue that the Torah offers itself as one of the original voices on the subject of "big thinking."

Parshat Behar teaches us two big lessons:

First, the shmitah, the seventh year of rest for the fields, a Shabbat for the land, reminds us that however much we feel in charge of this glorious Earth, it is really God's land. "Li kol ha'aretz," the Torah says, "All the land is Mine."

And second, the Torah instructs us that the 50th year is the Jubilee, the year of the shofar, the year where the biggest idea possible -- true freedom for all human beings, release from slavery, debt and financial suffering, and the ability to reclaim lost property, lost dignity and new life -- is envisioned.

I understand the Torah to be providing us a remarkable opportunity to bring holiness and God's divine presence into our world today. The ideas in Behar, like Kedoshim a few weeks ago, remind me that God commands us to reach for the highest ideals possible, the holiest ways possible and the most fair, just and equitable society imaginable. We should never let failure to achieve these goals stop us from continually striving to reach them.

Similar to Shabbat, we are to "sanctify" the Jubilee year, make it holy through our actions. It is not a mere observance or a passing moment but rather an active engagement of will and energy, changing our behavior to bring holiness into the world. We are to proclaim, to call out "liberty, freedom" in the land.

In a section regarding the Jubilee, "ukratem d'ror ba'aretz, l'chol yoshvehah" (proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants) (Leviticus 25:10), scholars understand the word "d'ror" to stem from an ancient Akkadian word, "anduraru," which refers to an edict issued by Mesopotamian kings when they have ascended the throne. As a gesture of royal benevolence and power, they would proclaim a moratorium on debts and indenture, thereby releasing those bound by servitude.

The release of debt is such a crucial aspect of being free, as one who is indebted to another remains under their power, under their constriction; it is humiliating and debilitating. Whether it is an individual who is saddled by credit card debt, student loan debt (I know about that one), health insurance debt or another kind of debt or it is a nation that has been crippled by national debt to another nation (like many African countries), the Torah is teaching us this week that no person, no nation can or should be in debt forever.

And in a fascinating addition to this idea, the "Pnei Yehoshua," the work of Rav Yaakov Yehoshua Falk, an 18th century master, teaches that "the Jubilee year brings freedom not only to the slaves but also to the slave owners, freeing them from the dehumanizing situation of having such power over other human beings."

We bring God into the world when we free ourselves of controlling others' destinies, for that is God's role, not ours.

Today, we need the big thinking of the Jubilee more than ever. With our nation in tremendous debt, both as individuals and collectively, we have become addicted to credit, which has ruined so many people. Wealthy nations lord over poorer nations loans that can never be paid back, which has left millions of people in collective debt, with their countries unable to climb out from under the mountain.

Debt relief, a hot topic a few years back, is still necessary if we are ever to level the playing field among nations. The Torah is reminding us this week that nobody deserves to be in debt forever; nobody deserves to be punished forever; everyone deserves to receive mercy and benevolence, a trait of God with which we human beings have always struggled.

Are things better than they once were? Absolutely, for many.

Yet, today, for the first time in history, we have enough resources to feed, clothe, house and educate every person on Earth in every nation. Dr. Jeffrey Sachs has been brilliantly teaching about this for some time now.

We need a global Jubilee, one that restarts the clock for us all, bringing us all into the 21st century, sharing the wealth, distributing fairly and wisely and releasing the debt. Let us proclaim "dror la'aretz," a liberty and freedom throughout all lands. This is big thinking. This is dynamic dreaming. This is holy action.

Let us bring the mercy of God into this world through our hands. And when someone says, "We can't do this; it is not possible," let us remind that person, and all of us, of one of the deepest teachings of Pirke Avot: "It is not up to us to finish the job, but neither are we ever free to stop trying."

For the sake of our children, for the sake of our world, the Jubilee is one big idea worth trying.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (www.pjtc.net). He also serves as national secretary of Brit Tzedek V'shalom, corresponding secretary of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and on the board of Jewish World Watch. He welcomes your comments at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

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