Behar

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

One of the most unusual stories of the heydays of Communism when its control over Eastern Europe was absolute, when the "iron curtain" was fully in force, was the role the late Chief Rabbi of Romania, Rabbi Rosen zt'l, carved out for himself in that notoriously anti-Semitic country. A member of Romania's Parliament, the Chief Rabbi asserted that nowhere in our tradition are we taught that the economic system endorsed by Communism is fundamentally in opposition to the teachings of Judaism. Based upon this belief, Rabbi Rosen enjoyed the trust of the Romanian government allowing him to, under a most repressive regime, maintain the Jewish community in Romania and at the same time orchestrate a mass emigration by Romanian Jewry to Israel. I had the opportunity to hear him speak on several occasions during his many visits to the United States. Never accompanied by Romania's secret service, he always spoke openly and frankly regarding the viability of Romanian Jewry. He was always proud to state that he was the Chief Rabbi of an ever diminishing community. This quite fascinating story of twentieth century Jewish life begs the question - Where do we as Jews stand in the constant struggle between collectivism and private enterprise? Or putting it in a more practical way- Does the Torah support "big government" or does it suggest that pure unadulterated capitalism is the best way to ensure society's and the individual's future?

I pose this question as this week's portion deals with one of the most unusual laws of the Torah - the Jubilee. "In the Jubilee year every man shall return to his hereditary property... Since the land is mine no land shall be sold permanently. You are foreigners and resident aliens as far as I am concerned, and therefore, there shall be time for redemption of all your hereditary lands" While it is true that the Talmud tells us (Aruchin 32b) that the Jubilee was only in force while the majority of the tribes owned their hereditary lands, this coming to an end when the ten tribes were exiled from Israel, the concept of the Jubilee year, nonetheless, gives us a great deal to ponder. Its most fundamental message, clearly stated by G‑d Himself, is that this world of ours simply isn't ours. We are "foreigners and resident aliens" on G‑d's land. The sense of the conventional understanding of the concept of "mine" is, by this simple yet profound statement, brought into question. If all is G‑d's and we are but foreigners, the right of another to lay claim to our support and help, not as an act of charity, but as an equal is validated. The poor and the needy, from a Jewish perspective, never receive charity, a mere hand out from the wealthy, but rather are given from G‑d's bounty as equals. It is their right to expect their fair share.

The Jubilee as well takes into account the need to provide opportunity, economic opportunity to all in a way that does not permit a permanent stratification of our society between "haves" and "have nots." obviously in an agrarian society the ownership of land was the key to economic success. Creating a society in which the vehicle for economic growth was made available to all, "In the Jubilee year every man shall return to his hereditary property," G‑d Created an atmosphere of hope for even the most economically deprived. Ancient Israel did not possess three and four generational welfare families. There was opportunity, real economic opportunity, ensured for all. The means to success was periodically given to each member of society. At the same time, during the fifty year period prior to the next Jubilee year, each individual, through his own hard work and ingenuity could amass wealth. Typically Judaism seems to take the middle road on the issue of which is the more humane approach to the economic structure of society. "Each according to his ability, each according to his needs" is not an alien concept in Jewish thought.

By the same token, capitalism is as well endorsed by our tradition. Overarching opportunity to share in G‑d's bounty and the right to reap the rewards of ones labors are juxtaposed in a most striking manner. How can we translate this unique approach into American terms? How should a Jew respond to the tension in American life between those who would have us return to a system in which capitalism, uncontrolled by government would reign, much as it did at the turn of the century and those who would create an ever growing federal government yearly assuming more and more control over society but as well assuming more responsibility for the varied needs of our citizenry? The answer, seemingly presented to us in the Jubilee, is one which, at its center, must understand the nature of the human being. Human beings, to function, to grow, require challenge and a sense of accomplishment. On the other hand, repeated failure and dejection can and will produce an individual who may eventually, out of sheer desperation, act out in an anti-social manner.

Society must take into account this fundamental reality of human existence when it struggles with the dilemma of how to ensure that all of us can have a meaningful share of the American dream. In the fifties, in my formative years, I was taught that with a good education the "world would be my oyster" or perhaps more appropriately in Jewish terms my bagel and lox (Nova Scotia of course!). Get an education and the opportunities awaiting you would unfold before you. Today, we find individuals with advanced degrees collecting our garbage. Just the other week my son learned that one of our garbage men was an architect by education who, unable to find work was thankful to work for the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation. If this is the case with one who is educated - how desperate must those lacking an education, a marketable skill, feel in today's world! As Jews we must ever ensure that those who are without are provided with the basic needs of existence - food, clothing, shelter, and medical care - not as an act of charity but rather as their right as fellow "foreigners" on G‑d's land. We must fight for welfare reform that first and foremost addresses the dignity of the individual. We must fight for welfare reform that produces a system that is ever vigilant about abuse and waste. At the very same time we must support efforts to provide for gainful employment.

Today the Jubilee can be understood in an American context as a massive commitment to educating and re-educating individuals in areas that can and will provide gainful employment as well as preparing an atmosphere conducive to industrial and entrepreneurial growth. As many may know, our Jewish United Federation through Ezra is currently in cooperation with my Synagogue, Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation, developing the "Uptown Cafe" to provide hot, kosher meals to many Jewish families and others living at or below the poverty level. While providing the needed nourishment Ezra will as well be working with our "guests" to aid them in developing their respective skills so that they can live independent lives. The entire thrust of this project is based upon the principles of Torah. Each of us has a right to expect our share of the "land" that is ultimately G‑d's. By the same token each of us has the right to have the means of self-sufficiency afforded us as well. This is the two fold goal of the "Uptown Cafe." I expect this innovative program to have a significant impact upon the lives of hundred upon hundreds of individuals who really want to live independent lives. The Uptown community expectantly awaits the official opening of the "Uptown Cafe."