Behar: Money and Human Dignity

Parashas Behar is a list of mitzvos.

The first section is all about shemittah and yovel. A family’s ancestral land cannot be sold into perpetuity. Instead, if someone is forced to sell their holdings, their family should try to redeem it as soon as they are able. And at worst, its ability to produce is sold until the next yovel, and then the land returns to its owner.

Another law in tha parashah is the prohibition against ona’ah. There are two kinds of ona’ahona’as mamon, cheating someone in financially by overcharging or underpaying for a commodity, and ona’as devarim — making someone feel bad through cutting speech. The fact that the two are both ona’ah and discussed together in the same paragraph, implied that the main problem with ona’as mamon is also not financial. No one wants to feel like a sucker. And it is that robbing of human dignity that ties both themes together.

And thinking about it, the laws of yovel similarly are a guarantee not only of money, but of the dignity that comes from financial independence. But guaranteeing that people retain their ancestral land, everyone can farm. Sustenance is guaranteed, and not through a handout.

Shemittah opens the parashah reminding someone that financial success doesn’t inhere in one’s work, but in that work being in partnership with the Almighty. We work the land, but to keep the relationship holy, we take a sabbatical from it as well. A year to step back, study Torah, and reconnect that work to higher goals.

The expression “כִּֽי־יָמ֣וּךְ אָחִ֔יךָ” appears three times in the parashah. The root \מוכ\ refers to being made low or to become depressed. In contrast to other terms for poverty, “yamukh” refers to poverty from the angle of the resulting emotional toll.

The first appearance (25:25) is in a context already mentioned — the person forced to sell their land whose extended family should try to help them redeem it back.

The second (25:35) is in the context of lending money, introducing the prohibition against charging interest. But again, it doesn’t simply say “lend him”, the phrase is “וְהֶֽחֱזַ֣קְתָּ בּ֔וֹ — and you will strengthen him.” The person isn’t just pushed into poverty, and you don’t just lend him money; he also loses dignity by becoming dependent on you, and you support him in a way that restores that dignity. A loan, not a handout.

The third occurrence (25:39) brings us back to yovel. No matter how poor a fellow Jew gets, they aren’t sold into permanent slavery. An enslaved Jew only serves six years, unless they choose a longer service at the end of those years, or they — like the land — is released on yovel. “כִּֽי־עֲבָדַ֣י הֵ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם לֹ֥א יִמָּכְר֖וּ מִמְכֶּ֥רֶת עָֽבֶד׃ — for they are My servants, whom I took out of the Land of Egypt, they should not be sold in a slave market.” (v. 42) Just as shemittah reminds the working man that they are really working with G-d, slavery of Jews is limited to ensure that they recall they work for G-d, and not “servants of servants”. Similarly, there are limits to how one treats them. Their work must be productive and meaningful.

One could say the entire parashah is about the relationship between money and personal dignity. Finding the balance between the loss of dignity pme cam feel being subject to poverty and dependency on others’ generosity and the loss of dignity of becoming enslaved to one’s work.

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