The Dangers of City-centric Societies

The Dangers of City-centric Societies

Country people tend to consider that they have a corner on righteousness and to distrust most manifestations of cleverness, while people in the city are leery of righteousness but ascribe to themselves all manner of cleverness. -Edward Hoagland

The biblical laws of Yovel, the Jubille year, when land was returned to the ancestral heirs, seems antithetical to our own modern perception of property rights. Once every fifty years, all lands in Israel were returned to their original owners or their descendants. However, there is more.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 25:34 has a fascinating analysis as to details of the laws, the reasons, and their effects on Israeli society. I will both paraphrase Rabbi Hirsch and quote from him below:

All houses in unwalled cities were also returned. The only exception were houses in walled cities which could be sold permanently, but only in cities that were walled at the time of the original conquest of the Land of Israel.

Cities in existence could not expand beyond their original area at the expense of arable soil. No farmland could be converted for urban use. If the cities became overcrowded, new cities could be built, but only on land that had never been used for agricultural purposes.

The first effect is that in the long run it maintained “the original distribution of the land according to tribal and familial divisions.” Its main purpose was to: “Restore and regenerate the social and political life of the nation.”

“The houses in unwalled cities not cut off from arable land could not be sold in perpetuity, but had to revert to the original family. City and countryside remained linked as family properties. As a result, every field and every vineyard normally would be owned by an individual who also owned a house in the nearest city. Thus the purpose of this momentous, sweeping legislation was to encourage the combination of the city dweller’s intelligence and ingenuity with the simple life of the countryside.”

“A state whose population is, and remains, settled primarily in moderate-sized country towns is protected not only from peasant dullness and stultification but to an equal extent also from the extremes of urban luxury and proletarianism.”

However, in the few well-defined and controlled walled cities, “a population could develop without ties to the surrounding arable land, an urban population compelled to make its living from commerce and industry.”

But the law for all other cities prevents their expansion “into metropolises detached from the surrounding countryside.”

“It is an effective way of preventing the rise of an economic system in which some families must live in perpetual poverty while huge tracts of land remain in the hands of a privileged few. A powerful class of landowners living in the midst of a landless and therefore pauperized class can never arise or survive in a country where every fiftieth year that land as a whole reverts to its original owners, with the richest returning to his original patrimonial property and the poorest getting back the field that had been his inheritance.”

The above is a divinely prescribed economic and social policy. Policymakers would be wise to give it some thought and attention. And may the rest of us find that right balance between city life, its priorities and values, and those of people closer to the land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To The Jordan Company, who I had the pleasure of meeting in the shiny spires of Manhattan, but who seem particularly well grounded.

Miraculous Nature

Miraculous Nature

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. -Albert Einstein

seed-sowing

There is a biblical command of the sabbatical year, the original divine order to leave ones field fallow every seven years. To willingly forsake ones livelihood, to have faith that nature itself will somehow be altered and that one’s food production will increase miraculously would seem foolhardy at best. However, the biblical text itself anticipates this fear and promises abundant produce to those who comply with God’s will.

In a sense, we have come to define nature as phenomena we have been accustomed to: the rising of the sun, the birth of a child, the decomposition of a seed and its subsequent growth into a plant, and so much more. Nature is commonplace and taken for granted, though no less incredible, even if science has given us explanations for how these things take place.

The Sfat Emet in 5637 (1877) explains that miracles and nature are one and the same and that what we know as nature is in fact the greatest miracle. Furthermore, for a person of faith that understands the divine origin of both and that they are both expressions of divine will, what the world calls miracles can occur to a person of faith with greater frequency because they are no longer blind to the hand of God.

He adds that just as there are laws of nature, there are likewise laws of miracles, which the people of Israel are predisposed to.

May we appreciate the miraculousness of nature and the naturalness of miracles.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israel’s various technology industries. It is becoming natural to see the miracles they are developing.

 

Beneficial Obedience

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/behar-beneficial-obedience/

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Behar

Beneficial Obedience

The ship that will not obey the helm will have to obey the rocks. -English Proverb

hands-generations

 

God gives the law. The expectation is that we will follow it. But He knows us well. He knows we are a stiff-necked people. He knows that we easily give in to our more basic desires. He knows that wealth, power and comfort corrupt us. He knows that poverty, helplessness and distress weaken us. Nonetheless, we are commanded. We are enjoined to obey.

There are a plethora of blessings that are listed for those that follow God’s commandments, just as there is a long list of curses for those that ignore God’s directives.

The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 25:11 highlights a particular facet of obedience. He claims that being obedient assures one that their lineage will continue. There is something about following God’s orders that instills in God a desire to see future generations of such people. On the other hand, the punishment for the disobedient is exile. The disobedient will not be able to enjoy life at home. They will be exiled. They will have to wander the earth, separated from their roots.

May we pay attention to what God wants of us and merit a long lineage in our homeland.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the new government of Israel.

Family Reconciliation

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/behar-family-reconciliation/

Netziv Leviticus: Behar

Family Reconciliation

So much of what is best in us is bound up in our love of family, that it remains the measure of our stability because it measures our sense of loyalty. All other pacts of love or fear derive from it and are modeled upon it.” -Haniel Long

Fights within families are part of human nature. Spouses; children with their parents; siblings – all have their share of altercations. However, sometimes some disagreements are so vitriolic, so hard fought, so anger-inducing that a separation ensues. The separation may be short-lived and the family members reconcile, reunite and family life continues. But other times, the damage is so deep, so hurtful, that only time and distance seems to ease the pain.

The Torah mandates that every fifty years the properties within the land of Israel must revert to their original owners. It is the Jubilee year that is celebrated at the end of a cycle of seven Sabbatical years. The Netziv on Leviticus 25:10 notes that the verse of the Jubilee uses a dual language. It states that each person will return to his inheritance and to his family.

The Netziv explains that this verse is speaking to family members who have grown distant, who have left their ancestors home, who may have differences, who may have traveled to distant lands and foreign shores. It is stating that the Jubilee is an opportunity to return home, to reconcile, to return to ones roots. Not only is it an opportunity, not only is it a right and a privilege – it is an obligation.

May we not have to wait for the Jubilee to return to our proper homes.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the State of Israel on its 66th birthday and to its Uruguayan emissaries. It’s wonderful to celebrate our homeland’s growth and success together.

 

Beware the Jealous

Ohr Hachayim Leviticus: Behar

Beware the Jealous

“The thermometer of success is merely the jealousy of the malcontents.” -Salvador Dali

Since the beginning of the modern State of Israel our neighbors have continuously tried to kill us. More than a century ago Jewish pioneers came to a land of swamps and deserts and with back-breaking sacrifice created a modern miracle of terraforming.

[continued at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/beware-the-jealous/]

The Snake’s Illusion

Kli Yakar Leviticus: Behar

 

The Snake’s Illusion

“A banker is a fellow who lends his umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back the minute it begins to rain.”

Mark Twain

The Torah assigns two descriptions to the sin of lending or borrowing with interest (usury): “neshech” and “marbit.” The Kli Yakar (Leviticus 25:36) explains that the two languages correspond to the two parties of the loan and their accompanying dangers.

“Neshech” is the snake’s poisonous bite and applies to the poor man, the borrower. At first, the bite seems like just a small innocuous puncture. It doesn’t hurt much. But soon enough the poison courses through the veins, and unnoticed, eventually kills its victim. So too, the borrower. He tells himself it’s not a big deal and he’ll be able to pay back his loan. But before he knows it, he’s in a mountain of debt with no clear way out.

“Marbit” is multiplication of assets that the rich lender imagines he creates by the loan. According to the Kli Yakar, such financial efforts are a mirage, muddying ones true assets, which will eventually be destroyed because of his usurious practices (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia 71a).

Both types of borrowers suffer from a lack of faith. Interest, for borrower and lender is a poisonous illusion. In typical commerce, one prays to God for success in his efforts, that his merchandise will sell, that his crops will grow, that the value of his investments will rise – there are many variables outside our control and hence the reliance and development of faith in God. In lending at interest, ones profit is (generally) assured. There is a fixed, determined interest rate. There is typically some type of collateral that insures payment. God and faith are ostensibly removed from the equation. For the borrower as well, he may calculate that the loan will save him from his troubles and smooth sailing will ensue.

The Kli Yakar argues that by sticking to straightforward (non-interest) lending and borrowing practices, one demonstrates greater faith in God’s financial machinations on our behalf.

May we have financial success and not have to get entangled in usurious practices.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Professor Eliezer Jaffe and TheIsraelFree Loan Association. http://www.freeloan.org.il

The Israel Free Loan Association is the largest interest free loan organization in the world. Since its inception in 1990 it has lent out over $135 million to over 50,000 low income families, the working poor and struggling small businesses. Currently it lends out $15 million every year to Israelis of all backgrounds.