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Capitalism. Socialism. Kedusha-ism?
How can kedusha be created outside of the Temple? In many ways this is the concern of the second half of the book of Vayikra, and it is primary in Parashat Behar. The goal of the Mikdash was not for God to “dwell” in the Temple but for God to dwell among us: “v’asu li mikdash, vi’shakhanti bi’tokham,” “You shall make for me a Temple and I will dwell in their midst” (Shemot 25:8). So while the first half of Vayikra focuses on the rites of the Temple and how to maintain and protect its sanctity, the second is devoted to bringing that sanctity out into the camp, into the midst of the people.
The Torah lays out this goal in the opening of Parashat Kedoshim, declaring it the responsibility of each individual to strive for kedusha, for holiness: “Holy shall you be, because holy am I, the Lord your God who makes you holy” (Vayikra 19:2). The goal of becoming holy, of not circumscribing holiness to the Temple and the Kohanim, is mandated for each individual. This is step one. By itself, it falls short, for holiness cannot only be the responsibility of each individual; it must also be the responsibility of society at large. If the society is devoted to achieving holiness, individuals will be supported through their shared efforts, and the very institutions and structure of society will reflect and reinforce this goal.
The Torah begins this societal structuring with the moadim at the end of last week’s parasha, Parashat Emor. The Children of Israel are commanded to declare the holidays, the holy days, in their proper time: “These are the fixed times of God that you shall proclaim as sacred occasions, mikraei kodesh, there are my fixed celebratory times” (Vayikra 23:2). The first step in structuring society around kedusha is to structure the calendar around these foci of kedusha. The basic rhythms of daily life are then referenced to and synchronized with the holy days. That is why Shabbat is included in the list of moadim even though it is not affected by the way the calendar is set up; it is not a holy day that “you shall proclaim.” While independent of the seasonal calendar, Shabbat is the central component in bringing kedusha into our week and our structure of time: “From the first of the week, we must already begin to prepare for Shabbat” (Beitzah 16a).
To this foundation are added the seasonal festivals, bringing kedusha into the natural seasons of the year and orienting all agricultural labors—the primary engagement of the people—toward God and God’s holidays. That the Torah emphasizes the observance of the moadim outside the Temple and not the sacrifices that are brought for them in the Temple (which can be found in Parashat Pinchas) is particularly noteworthy. The point is obvious: while these holidays are commemorated in the Temple, the individual’s responsibility is to draw on the Temple experience to bring these holy days into the camp, into the very fabric of society. Sometimes this will pull the people back into the Temple, when the first of the barley or grain harvest is brought to the Temple, for example. But at the end of the year, when the people gather in all the produce, they celebrate God’s bounty in the camp, taking the lulav and esrog and sitting in the sukkah for seven days, rejoicing before God.
Because all of our labor exists within the larger context of kedusha and the recognition of God’s gifts to us, we will naturally share our bounty—God’s bounty—with those who are less fortunate: “And when you harvest the harvesting of your land, you shall not reap the corners of the field, and you shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest. To the poor and the stranger you shall leave them, I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra 23:22). Kedusha, then, brings a God-consciousness to our activities, and this awareness finds its expression both in our relationship to God—giving thanks and praying for the future—and in our relationship to our fellow humans.
Parashat Behar, then, is the culmination and apex of what it means to structure a society around kedusha. The deeply-held institutions of contemporary society—the free exercise of property, private ownership in perpetuity, free-range capitalism, charging interest on a loan, the leaving of “charity” to personal choice—all of these are profoundly challenged in Parashat Behar, which establishes a society with God at its center. The Torah is telling us that the world and everything in it does not belong to us, it ultimately belongs to God: “And the land you shall not sell in perpetuity, for Mine is the land, and you are dwellers and residents with Me (in My land)” (Vayikra 25:23).
This is the key paradigm shift that we must make, and once we are able to do so, once God is at the center, then the remainder of the parasha follows. If we do not own the land, if we are only given use of it by God, then we must always ask what its proper and accepted use is. We will need to periodically stop using the land to remind ourselves that it is not truly ours. Thus we will have a Sabbatical year, a “Sabbath of the land,” but more significantly, “a Sabbath to God” (25:2). We will not only stop working the land, but we also will allow all to eat from its produce, in effect relinquishing our very ownership and thereby acknowledging that such ownership is really an illusion. And on the Sabbath of Sabbaths in the Jubilee Year, we will not only suspend our ownership but truly reverse it, restoring the land to its original owners and the people to their freedom.
The deep structuring of society according to the principles of the Sabbatical Year will reorient our relationship to property in other realms as well. When it comes to lending, we will understand that, like the land, money is given to us by God, and we must use it not as we see fit, but in ways that are proper. We will have an obligation to lend to the poor and to do so without charging interest (25:35–38). Once the concept of complete ownership has been challenged, we will understand that when we “purchase” a slave—an inescapable reality in ancient times—it can never mean true ownership. If we cannot own land, how much less can we own another human being? And, finally, because our goal will be not to maximize profit but to make our residence on the land according to God’s will and to use the wealth that God has given us in ways that help us serve God maximally, we will acknowledge our responsibility to use our own funds to help restore the original owners to their inheritance.
The Torah’s focus throughout is on laying the foundation of kedusha. The societally beneficial practices naturally follow, but they are not the starting point. This is why the Torah does not refer to the Sabbatical Year as “Shmita”—the word used in Shemot (23:11) and Devarim (15:1–3) that means “to let go”—in Parashat Behar. The focus in those places is the societal benefit itself; it is the giving of the produce of the land to the poor and the releasing of debts. In Behar, such benefits are a mere consequence of the deeper reality of the Shabbat of the Years. Once the concept of Shabbat is introduced into the cycles of days and years, when it is embedded in the deep structure of society, the entire orientation towards property, land, and ownership shifts. Once kedusha is taken out of the Temple and brought into the camp, once it becomes the framing concept of our lives, then our society and our lives will be transformed.
It is necessary not to lose sight of the foundation of kedusha and its importance, even when the practical implementation is beyond our reach. It may not always be feasible for us to follow fully the demands of the Sabbatical Year. In the early Talmudic period, Hillel already developed the prozbul as a workaround to allow people who otherwise would never have loaned to the poor to collect after the Sabbatical Year had transpired. The Rabbis, perhaps implicitly understanding that the Torah’s call for not loaning with interest was less feasible and less meaningful in a commercial context, developed the workaround known as a heter iska, turning a commercial loan into an investment. And in modern times, Rav Kook developed the heter mechira, the selling of the entire Land of Israel to a non-Jew, as a workaround to allow the land to be worked and real societal needs to be addressed during the Shmita year.
With all these workarounds, it is easy to lose sight of the principle of kedusha. We may easily come to see these laws as burdens, to make avoiding them and maintaining our non-kedusha orientation towards money, property, and land our goal. Rav Kook was very sensitive to this concern. In the introduction to his work on the heter mechira, VeShavta Ha’aretz, he explicitly insisted on affirming the kedusha of the land and using the sale as a technical solution, and he rejected those who would solve the practical problems by denying the kedusha of the land. This, said Rav Kook, would make us lose sight of the core value of kedusha and kedushat ha’aretz.
A practical solution may be needed at times, but we cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of the principle. This remains our challenge today. How do we address practical realities while working to structure our society around the principles of kedusha? But if we focus our efforts on this reorientation, if we strive to bring kedusha into the camp, one day we may actually be able to live in a society defined by kedusha, not just in principle, but in practice.