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Parshat Behar: A Biblical Vision of Economic Justice

Parshat Behar: A Biblical Vision of Economic Justice

“(Every seventh year) that which grows of itself of your harvest you shall not reap, and the grapes of your vine you should not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. And the Sabbath-produce of the land shall be food for you: for you, and your servant and your maid, and for your hired servant and for the settlers by the side that sojourn with you (Leviticus 25:5-6).”

The Torah’s most powerful moments describe our aspiration for a more just world. We reread these passages each year because they supply the imagination required to dedicate ourselves to tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Parshat Behar is one of these essential moments. The Israelites are told that every seven years they must not harvest food from their fields, and instead should allow all who are hungry access to their fields, to eat and be satisfied. Additionally, during this seventh year all debts between members of the community are forgiven. Those in debt are given a chance to start anew. The implications of the sh’mita year are powerful. The land does not belong to any one person. The land belongs to God and should be used to sustain all living beings. Further, the world is not a place where people are meant to continually accumulate wealth and bring down others. Everyone has a right to accumulate money and property and be satisfied, and every person has a right to not live eternally in debt. Each person has the right to live a fulfilling and meaningful life.

This biblical command is a beautiful model of the contemporary economic justice we seek. Rav Kook, an early 20th century leader, outlines how the sh’mita acts as a reset, ensuring that no person falls too far into economic hardship and that no individual or group gains too much power to use over others:

“The seventh year serves to rectify the social ills and inequalities that accumulate in society over the years. When poorer segments of society borrow from the wealthy, they feel beholden to the affluent elite. “The debtor is a servant of the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). This form of subservience can corrupt even honest individuals in their dealings with the rich and powerful. The Sabbatical year comes to correct this situation of inequality and societal rifts, by removing a major source of power of the elite: debts owed to them. – (Rav Kook, Shabbat Haaretz).”


The sh’mita law is a model for the change that we wish to pursue in the world. In early June, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will issue an administrative rule requiring payday lenders to consider the lender’s “ability to repay” before issuing a short term loan. We are mobilizing as a Reform Movement to collect comments in support of this rule, as it is one of the ways that we can advocate for the fair lending as taught by our tradition. We will urge CFPB to do everything they can to make sure that lending serves as a lifeline for families and does not further exacerbate economic inequality.

When we advocate for economic justice, we do so in the echoes of a biblical vision of equality, the sh’mita. Our tradition recognizes the structural inequality that exists in any free society, and also requires us to imagine and work toward a more just reality.

Visit the RAC’s economic justice page for more information about how you can support the payday lending rule when it is released. You can also read this blog post about the pay day lending debt trap and why pay day lending too often turns into predatory lending.

Tyler Dratch is the Torah, text, and tradition coordinator at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC) and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, MA.

Tyler Dratch

Published: 5/31/2016