Judaism: 'Divrei Azriel' on the Parsha: Occupy Mt. Sinai
Parshat Behar offers us the Torah’s highly complex, sensitive and balanced approach to social justice and class equality. Behar’s first few topics include Shemita and Yovel. Both of these mitzvot appear to have the effect of creating an equitable society by preventing any single individual from becoming too wealthy, and ensuring that the poor have a way to climb the social ladder.
Particularly, the command to leave the land fallow for the Shemita year prevents the rich landowner from spending another year bolstering his bottom line and increasing his net worth. Rather than work the land and take profits, the rich landowner his forced to allow everyone to access his hefker produce, thus making life easier for the poor and allowing them to focus on the future.
Moreover, the mitzvah of Yovel explicitly helps the poor climb out of their difficult social status. Firstly, if someone was forced into slavery, during Yovel the Torah requires their freedom. Additionally, on Yom Kippur of the Yovel year all lands are transferred out of the domain of the current, presumably wealthy entrepreneur, owner and back to the original owners. These halakhot ensure that class divisions don’t perpetuate indefinitely. Rather, after a generation or two of being stricken with poverty and difficulty, the poor are given the chance to “restart” and pursue economic stability.
I believe the Torah’s inclusion of the prohibitions of ona’at mamon and ona’at d’varim (explained below, ed.) fits into this socio-economic system as well. On the simple level, the Torah teaches us about ona’at mamon in the context of Yovel to demonstrate that the price of land is linked to the time until Yovel, when the land will return to its owner.
However, I believe there is a more fundamental reason for the inclusion in the context of Yovel and Shemita. Seemingly, ona’at mamon functions to ensure class equality and create an equitable society, as well as adding an important element into the conversation about social justice. Firstly, the Torah is telling the rich that they cannot overcharge for products which are needed by the poor, thus preventing the creation of a vicious cycle of poor people becoming indebted to the rich, and then spending the rest of their lives continually taking on and paying off debt. Thus, on the most basic level, ona’at mamon is another example of the Torah’s inclination towards a balanced economy and class fluidity.
However, I believe the Torah is adding another component to our vision of social justice and an equitable economy: the halakhot of ona’at mamon might be offering us a more realistic and sensible system of economic justice.
According to the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 51a), the laws of ona’at mamon applies to both the seller and buyer. Ostensibly, this means that it is prohibited for a seller to overcharge an unwitting buyer, and it is prohibited for a buyer to underpay a naïve seller for his item. However, when discussing the scope of the issur, the language of the Mishnah is overly general: “echad ha’lokach vi’echad ha’mocher yesh la’hen onaah – the buyer and seller both have the [prohibition of] on’aah.”
Perhaps the vague and expansive languge of the Mishnah is suggesting that in every transaction which violates the principle of ona’at mamon, both the buyer and seller are at fault. According to this view, the responsibility for fair trade doesn’t fall only on the rich/knowledgeable individual who is swindling his fellow, but on the unaware and uninformed buyer/seller as well.
The ignorant are commanded to learn about the issue; to properly evaluate and appraise their possessions, needs and business decisions. According to this approach, the Torah is placing responsibility on the poor person to inquire and learn about the transaction. While recourse to court and claiming the rich person was at fault for taking advantage of the poor is always possible, it is a last resort that will ultimately fail to help the poor person’s future.
The Torah requires that poor people rise up to the challenges they face and ensure they aren’t subjected to damaging transactions. Thus, while the rich might try to take advantage of people, the poor people must heroically refuse the offers of the rich and demand justice. The halakha is trying to ensure that the poor don’t fall into a pattern of short term gains and asking for help, but are empowered to utilize their assets in the most productive way possible and eventually achieve financial stability.
Additionally, the prohibition of onaat d’varim fits into this model as well. By prohibiting abusive and damaging words, the Torah is trying to protect everyone‘s dignity. Just as the wealthy land owner cannot abuse the poor, the downtrodden cannot mock the rich. Seemingly, this system can create a framework where the social distance between the rich and poor is smaller, and thus surmountable. Given the conflict between human nature and halakha’s view of human dignity and treating the poor respectfully, we readily understand why the Torah would make these demands of the rich.
However, I believe this halakha also relates to the same idea of empowering the poor. Often, people who are downtrodden and weak will harbor bitter feelings towards the rich. While these feelings are understandable, and in many cases perhaps even justified, they are certainly not helpful or productive. Perhaps the Torah prohibits abusive speech in the same conversation as class equality and social justice because the responsibility is on the poor people too; yes, the rich cannot abuse the poor and must help them rise up from poverty, but the poor must be ready and able to receive the help their given and should not demonize the rich.
Finally, the Torah’s prohibition to sell land “forever - latzmitut” might support this theory as well. The Rambam understands that the Torah is prohibiting people from selling their land forever – even though such a transaction is invalid (Shemita vi’Yovel 11:1). Thus, despite such a transaction being null and void because the land returns to the original owner during Yovel, even trying to engage in such a transaction is prohibited.
According to the Rambam, the halakha’s message is that the poor people cannot engage in behaviors which will hurt themselves in the long run. Yes, someone might be poor and facing challenges at a given moment. However, they cannot despair and sell their future. Rather, poor people must remember that one day they will regain their land and, with hard work and great effort, they can achieve economic stability and financial security.
In this way, the Torah shares the responsibility for social justice will all parts of society.