Parashat Behar begins by juxtaposing the laws of the sabbatical and Jubilee years with the laws governing the way we treat the poor in our society. First the Torah teaches that every seven years, during the Shemitah year, the land must be allowed to lie fallow as a “Sabbath to the Lord” (25:4). Next we are told that every fifty years, during the Jubilee, all land must be returned to its original owners. The parashah then moves on to teach that if a “kinsman” or “brother” is in dire financial straits, we are obligated to let that individual live by our side without charging interest or taking advantage of that person’s penury. Taken together, these verses have much to teach us about how the cyclical nature of life impacts the way we relate to those less fortunate.
Why do the laws governing the treatment of the poor follow on the heels of the laws governing the cycle of the years? Perhaps an answer can be found in the Torah’s justification for the Jubilee. God tells Moses that the land may not be sold in perpetuity “for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (25:23). That is, all land belongs ultimately to God, and we are merely temporary custodians. But what is true of land is true of all other property as well. Nothing that is ours is guaranteed to be ours in perpetuity. When we find ourselves comfortable and well-off, we need to remember that no one stays in the same place forever. The only constant in life is change, and we who are blessed with success and good fortune may find, in time, that the tables are turned. We are commanded to reach out to help our fellow individuals in need because, as the cycle of the sabbatical and Jubilee years reminds us, what goes around comes around. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Torah uses the term “aḣicha”—your brother—to refer to individuals down on their luck and in need of assistance. They are related to us because we are closer than we might like to think – as the wheel of fortune turns, they could just as easily be in our situation, and we in theirs.
The Talmud captures this notion of the mutability of fortune in a series of stories about charity that appear in the opening chapter of tractate Bava Batra (11a). In one such tale we are introduced to Binyamin the righteous, as he is known, who was responsible for dispensing charity funds to the needy. Once, during a time of drought and privation, a woman came before him and asked him to support her. He told her that there was no money left in the charity fund, but she would not relent. She said to him, “My master, if you do not support me, a woman and her seven sons will die.” Binyamin the righteous—true to his name—arose and supported her from his own private funds. With time, the Talmud goes on to relate, Binyamin the righteous fell gravely ill. Just when he was on the verge of death, the ministering angels pleaded with God to sustain him by the merit of his generosity to the woman and her seven sons, and indeed, he was rewarded with an extra twenty-two years. In this story, he who was in a position to act graciously to others later found himself in dire need. By the merit of his munificence, his own life was sustained.
Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 29 of a man “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” who later declares that he would “scorn to change my state with kings.” In a world governed by a God who “lifts the needy from the ash heap” and “seats them with princes” (Psalms 113:7-8), we who have been brought low can just as easily be lifted up, and vice versa. It is a humbling lesson, as it reminds us that we ought not to relate to those less fortunate with pity but with empathy.
We all know people who seem worthy of our pity – a kid who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the class, a single mother struggling to raise a difficult child, a widow pained by loneliness. The challenge is to relate to these people with the cognizance that all of us, at some point in life, may find ourselves in a similar situation. We ought not to feel sorry for those who are struggling and suffering, but rather to remind ourselves of what it felt like when we were in their position. We must be kind to the stranger because, as the Torah reminds us, we were strangers ourselves.
The juxtaposition of the laws of the Shemitah cycle and the laws about the impoverished kinsman remind us that at some point or another, we will all need someone else to reach out a kind hand and help us up – whether financially, emotionally, or socially. For as long as our field is flourishing, may we learn, in this spirit, to share our fruit and our fortune.