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Taste of Torah: Behar-Behukkotai

May 14, 2020

וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּ֗ם אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶיהָ יוֹבֵל הִוא תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם וְשַׁבְתֶּ֗ם אִישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּתוֹ וְאִישׁ אֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ תָּשֻֽׁבוּ׃ 

And you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to their holding and each of you shall return to their family.        
Leviticus 25:10

This past April, one third of all renters in the United States did not pay their landlords on time or in full. On May 1, millions more failed to pay. As unemployment soars to unheard-of heights in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, people who live paycheck-to-paycheck are simply unable to meet basic financial needs. 

But for some renters, not paying on May 1 was a calculated choice. Activists throughout the country, particularly in New York, Pennsylvania, and California, are calling for the largest rent strike in American history, and tens of thousands of renters have pledged their participation. The #CancelRent movement demands that legislators step in to assist renters by suspending or forgiving rent, mortgage, and utility payments for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez voiced her support for the movement and co-sponsored a bill in Congress that has the federal government cover losses to landlords and mortgage holders throughout the rent cancellation. In the New York State Legislature, a group of representatives has called specifically for a “three-month rent jubilee.” 

It is fitting that this economic crisis looms large as we read parashat Behar-Behukkotai. As the parashah opens, we see God speaking directly to Moshe on Mount Sinai, demanding that the Israelites enact a radical economic policy once they enter the Holy Land: Every seven years, the land must lie fallow, with no active reaping or sowing. Despite the lack of work, the Israelites will survive by the grace of God, who will provide an abundant harvest in the sixth year that will feed the people throughout the seventh year and beyond. And after every seven of these seven-year cycles—at the end of the forty-ninth year—the horn shall be sounded and all people will be released from their debts. This year is hallowed in Hebrew as the “yovel”—in English, the jubilee. In this holy jubilee year, land sales from the previous five decades are canceled, and the land reverts to its original owner: God, who has allocated it by tribe.

Radicals and revolutionaries, from abolitionist Frederick Douglass to global debt relief coalitions, have long found inspiration in this concept. In his 1902 utopian novel, Old-New Land, Theodor Herzl imagined a future Jewish state that honored the jubilee year by reverting all land back to the government. “Moses, in his day,” explains Herzl’s character David, “wished to distribute the land so as to ensure the goal of social justice. You will see that our methods serve the purpose just the same. The increases in land values accrue not to the individual owner, but to the public.” For Herzl, Douglass, and social reformers throughout history, Leviticus 25 was a rallying call for justice. 

Even so, disagreements about the jubilee abound. Was it really a measure aimed at social justice, or did it serve to make permanent tribal divisions set through warfare? Was ethnic division of land ownership better than a system that allowed for economic mobility? Was the jubilee year ever actually practiced, or would its enactment be a recipe for societal disaster? 

This last question swirls, too, around the #CancelRent debate today. Many argue that cancellation of rent simply leads to a domino effect of economic loss, as landlords are unable to pay their mortgages, banks can no longer fund their investments, and individuals lose their pensions and insurance. Activists counter these concerns with a reminder that the goal of the rent strike is not to end rent permanently, but rather to challenge state and federal governments to provide better protections for renters in moments of crisis. Rent strikers seek to institute policies, like affordable housing stocks and expanded rent control, that respond not just to this pandemic, but also to the ongoing crisis of massive income inequality and housing insecurity. Like David in Old-New Land, they wish to see an increase in wealth accrue not just to those already wealthy, but to all people. 

In his commentary on Leviticus 25:10, medieval commentator Ibn Ezra looks at the word דרור, translated above as “release.” “This word means liberty,” he writes, citing Proverbs 26:2, in which “the term there denotes a bird which sings as long as it is free; but if it is forced into captivity it will starve itself to death.” As people throughout the country choose between paying rent and buying food, let us consider the economic shackles that our system creates. Let us consider the wealth and blessing that our nation has accrued over the years and ask ourselves if now is the moment to create policies that draw on that wealth—not for the benefit of a select few, but for all human beings. Let us find a way to proclaim release throughout the land for all inhabitants, for this is true liberation.

Written By Abi Weber

Abi Weber is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.