Parshat B’har speaks of fundamental issues of justice and equality. “And you shall proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants of the land, to all who dwell upon her,” the verse which adorns the Liberty Bell, has its source in this chapter. The text is concerned with distribution of resources, stressing the fundamental equality of each individual. The Torah expresses this value through the institution of the sabbatical and jubilee years, as means to guard against the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and to protect the poor from lives of indentured servitude. This text establishes a connection between the way we treat the land and the way we treat each other.
On a physical level, we learn that the land ultimately belongs to no single individual, rather, the earth belongs to God. We may use it for a time, but it is ours only temporarily. The Torah teaches us this lesson through the establishment of a Shabbat, a year of rest for the land, paralleling the weekly Shabbat in our own lives. This is known as the year of Shemitta. During this year we are not to work in the fields or the vineyards, but are given as food only that which grows wild. If the land truly belongs to no one person, then we are all its custodians.
From a spiritual perspective, Rabbi Elias Lieberman notes that, “In God’s scheme for this material universe we inhabit, amassing has its limitations. We are not what we own, for, in fact, we do not “own” anything. We better define ourselves by what we accomplish, with what we “own,” by how effectively we use the resources that we acquire and with which we are blessed to do God’s work in the world.”
The fiftieth year is the Jubilee year- all land resorts to its original ownership. Provision is made for the redemption of land belonging to a person who does not have the purchase price. Every fifty years the land is re-distributed, ensuring that at least once per generation, each person has the opportunity to begin anew.
Arthur Waskow describes the Jubilee year as speaking “about a cycle of change. It does not imagine that the land can be shared and justice achieved once and for all, and it does not imagine that a little change, year after year, can make for real justice. The Jubilee says that in every year the poor must be allowed to glean in the corners of the field; that in every seventh year loans must be forgiven and the poor lifted from the desperation of debt, but that once every generation there must be a great transformation- and that each generation must know it will have to be done again, in the next generation.”
Today, the treatment of our fragile ecology as well continues to be of concern. We learn from this parsha that we cannot separate our ethical responsibilities in any one sphere of life. Men, women, and the earth herself are all part of one, fragile creation. Each part of this creation must be treated with respect and caring, or the integrity of the whole is threatened.
Although there is no evidence that shemita was ever widely observed, the problem it addresses is a perennial one. As we read this parsha, we must face the issues of poverty, injustice and disenfranchisement which continue to plague us in the contemporary world. B’har offers us a vision of the world as it should be, and emphasizes our role in translating that vision into reality, by working towards a true equality between women and men, by alleviating poverty and caring for our fragile environment, and by consciously treating each other with dignity and respect. The work of tikkun olam, repair of the world, is part of our covenant with God. In parshat B’har we discover a vision of ultimate equality. It is our task to translate that vision into action.