When Economics Meets Theology

The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am giving you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord” (Lev 25:1-2)

This is the beginning of Parashat Behar (meaning “at the mountain”), and it immediately goes into a manifest of economical concepts.

In order to get closer to the ideas of the portion, let’s briefly consider some of them:

1) Shmita – sabbatical year (the 7th year), dedicated to the rest of the land. With a clear connection to the over-exploitation of the natural resources.

2) Yovel – Jubilee, year of remission. Every 50 years a kind of a “restart”, which provides freedom to those who do not possess it, abolition of debts and returning lands to their original owners.

The Christian Jubilee has the same starting point and thus in the year of the Jubilee 2,000 John Paul II called for the forgiving of external debt.

3) Prohibition – limitation of profit through lending with interest, regulating in this way financial interactions. This issue is shared by Islam as well, which speaks of the Riba (in Hebrew – Ribit) and even has its own bank system, based on this vision.

4) Slavery; The Torah has a justified obsession with this theme. It once again reminds us that manpower is not raw material, that it is sustained by basic rights – and freedom is one of them!

Assuming these ideas as understood, Rashi begins his commentary of chapter 25 in Leviticus asking what the connection is between Shmita (sabbatical year) and Mount Sinai.  Or, in other words (mine), what is this salad?

Mount Sinai, for Judaism, is the place where the tablets were delivered. Usually, any mentioning of this place refers to the formative episode of the receiving of the tablets. Thus, Rashi’s question is: how would we connect between the universality of the tablets and the last ideas we were talking about, which appear in the most sacred place possible in terms of our formation as a People.

Rashi answers by explaining that even though it looks like these are two separate events, they were actually one, and all the laws were delivered together, in the “revelation” in Sinai. According to this explanation, there is no special connection between the two groups of laws we’ve been talking about, because in fact all the Jewish laws were delivered in the same act. It’s important to remind that the 10 commandments appear in the Torah prior to the economic laws of Behar. I think that adopting Rashi’s explanation in this case is giving up the emphasis of this portion. In my opinion, delivering the group of laws using the concept of Sinai is a way to say: I am about to give you a very sacred thing! And I think that these specific laws are given a posteriori, coming to fill in a missing part in the commandments.

Following the thoughts about this first verse, the Ramban explains that the use of the present time, “the land I am giving you,” highlights the biblical fact that the land is always a gift!

The idea of the gift (present) as a constant, and thus the use of the present time is, from my perspective, the key to get into the depth of the message.

The Divine, the idea of the revelation through the text, or the possibility of connecting ethically with the wish to do good, are not events, but a constant. It is your capacity to perceive a dimension of meaning in the world. You may not easily see it, but your insistence in the search of being present, of living with awareness and fighting the indifference make it visible to your eyes.

The Jewish tradition maintains that we “all” were present at the revelation at Mount Sinai. Continuing the idea of the present, we can truly connect with the possibility of being in and perceiving what is in reality as a constant.

Out of this perspective, the encounter between the theological and the economic stems from the development of sensitivity that stimulates us to watch the natural resources, to assume the commitment to establish a balance between their use and abuse. It is pleading for equality of opportunities, fighting for freedom, adding your voice to those that ask for mercy for the poor countries with huge debts, rethinking our participation in the financial “game”. Humanizing the production and understanding that he who sleeps near the sewing machine, who assembled your shoes, is a human being… and he is a modern-day slave.

The encounter between theology and economics is established through our capacity to look at the system with faith, and plead for a better world. It’s consuming with conscience, it’s choosing any time you can to purchase “honest products”, it’s checking that your cosmetics weren’t experimented on animals  (look for the bunny sign). Each of us will find our way. We know what are the consequences of a world in which the only important value is efficient production, in which the market becomes the entity that takes care of the people rather than the values that we establish.

Revelation, Divinity, the burning bush, and Mount Sinai are our constant commitment to perceive, to be present, to connect with the world and to try with all our being to give our best!

And if you ask yourself how your effort can make a difference, the Sages of the Talmud wrote:

“You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:21)


Image courtesy of wikipedia “Kids labour”

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