Standing at Sinai means leaving Egypt behind

By Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael

Behar and Behukotai, the last parashiyot of the book of Leviticus, outline a series of agricultural and economic laws and conclude with a series of conditional blessings, if we remain faithful to the Covenant, and curses, if we do not. 

These laws and practices, as well as those given throughout the Torah, are given against the backdrop of our escape from Egypt. We imagine that we are given a blank slate, a new start and the ability to create a society from the ground up.

The people of Israel stand at Sinai to prepare to create a society as different as possible from the system of slavery that we escaped. Radical new laws, ritual practices and economic arrangements are presented to us as the way to create a free and holy society. 

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In these verses, laws for a new economic reality are outlined: the cycles of shmitah and yovel. In every seventh year in the land of Israel, the shmitah year takes place. All agricultural work is to be stopped, the land is allowed to “rest,” and all produce that grows of its own accord is available to be eaten — but not stored, sold or purchased — by any person. Gates are to be left open, and access to the field may not be denied to anyone. 

After seven cycles of this shmitah year, the 50th year is to be proclaimed the yovel year in which all debts are cancelled, all land that was sold off only as a last resort to survive a financial emergency is returned to its original owner, and all slaves are freed and returned to their families and their homes. Slavery was an even more extreme last resort; one would sell oneself or one’s family into slavery only to avoid starvation.

The text makes clear that this way of going about agriculture and business is a radical departure from what we might expect. It spells out in great detail the implications of these laws: All sales of land are to be regarded really as leases, land prices  change based on how near the yovel year is, and loans are made with the knowledge that they will be forgiven sooner or later. God states unequivocally that “the land is Mine, you are merely tenants and temporary residents with Me (Lev 25:23).”

There was another time in our biblical story in which we were “tenants and temporary residents.” Upon their arrival in Egypt, Joseph’s brothers declare, “We have come to take up temporary residence in the land, since there is nowhere for our cattle to graze in Canaan.” (Gen 47:4). 

And indeed, the direct contrasts between the story of how we became enmeshed in Egypt and the way we are to manage our land in Israel are striking. In Egypt, in preparation for a famine, the household of Pharaoh, at the advice of Joseph, hoarded all of the surplus grain, buying it at low prices during the years of plenty and storing it away for the difficult times that were to come. 

When the famine began, the royal household first sold grain at inflated prices and “gathered up all the money that was in the land of Egypt” (Gen 47:14), then exchanged grain for the livestock of small landholders (Gen 47:17). The famine continued, and the people of Egypt were forced to make ever more desperate offers. They offered to sell their lands and, finally, to sell themselves as slaves to the household of Pharaoh in exchange for enough to eat. 

Eventually the royal household owned all but the priestly lands and relocated the people to work the land as indentured servants to Pharaoh (Gen 47:23). These were desperate choices that the people of Egypt could never recover from. Ultimately, it was in the slave economy that we ourselves became slaves.

Now that we stand on the other side of that experience, the laws of shmitah and yovel respond precisely to every single step of desperation that created the slave economy in Egypt. No one may hoard unlimited wealth, one who is forced to sell a field must be offered the chance to buy it back at a fair price (Lev 25:25-28) and, if that is not possible, will regain possession at the yovel year. 

One who must sell himself into debt slavery is to be treated as a waged worker, must be offered the opportunity to buy freedom, and will eventually have freedom (and economic possibility) restored at the yovel year (Lev 25:39-41). 

Life will still be full of difficulties and painful choices, but these will not result in permanent inescapable poverty. There will always be opportunities to rebuild.

Today, we are living in a reality in which far too many of us still face unexpected and inescapable economic difficulties. At home and worldwide, many of us do not have enough resources for basic food, shelter, medical care and education. Many of us are forced to make desperate decisions to survive. 

We look around us and we see that poverty is, by and large, passed on from generation to generation, and rebuilding from economic tragedy is not feasible for many of us. 

Some of our current realities are more complex than those described in these verses; we do not have a recent point in history to which we can “reset” with a yovel year, nor do we get to build a society from scratch. Our tools, then, will have to be different and more complex than those offered here. 

But we do have a clear message: When poverty becomes crushing and desperate, when inequality becomes intergenerational, then we are on the road back to Egypt. When we find and use the tools to bring about possibility and economic justice, we are standing at Sinai.