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Blog - Torah Insights

Judaism and Capitalism

The most important principle to capitalism is private property. The most important principle to Judaism is unity. How can these seemingly opposing ideas co-exist? Private property, by definition, creates separation and division within society. How can Judaism, which at it's core is about the unity of the one G-d, the universe and the unity of all people created in the image of G-d, accept the divisions created by private property?

On the last day of his life, Moses is well aware of this seeming contradiction. His people are about to transition from life in the desert, where there is no ownership of land, to Israel, where for the first time the people become land owners. Moses knows he has one final opportunity to teach his people how to balance these two opposing ideals. That is why, on the last day of life, he commands his beloved people:

"At the end of [every] seven years, at an appointed time, in the Festival of Succoth, [after] the year of release,

When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord, your God, in the place He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears.

Assemble the people: the men, the women, and the children, and your stranger in your cities, in order that they hear, and in order that they learn and fear the Lord, your God, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah.

And their children, who did not know, will hear and learn to fear the Lord, your God, all the days that you live on the land, to which you are crossing the Jordan, to possess.

Moses wants the people to understand that they are not defined, and should therefore not self define, by their material possessions and achievements. He wants to tell each individual: 'although your house may be nicer then your neighbor's, you are still one. You are one, because your soul, the core of your essence, is one with your neighbors soul. The material possessions that divide you are nothing more then an external garment, it is not who you are, and in can therefore not separate you from your friend.'

How can this message be instilled in the hearts of minds of people who will spend most of their time, energy and effort working their land? the only way to do so is through the commandments of "Shmitah" and "Hakhel", the sabbatical (when we are forbidden to work the land for an entire year) and the gathering in the temple after the sabbatical, in the beginning of the first year of the next cycle, when the people are headed back to work for the next six years.

During the seventh year every land owner takes a year long break from working the land, devoting his time to spiritual pursuits. During that year all produce that grows in the field is legally ownerless, and anybody is free to enter any orchard to enjoy it's fruit. This serves as a powerful reminder to the people that there is more two life then amassing wealth, that their true essence is the soul not the body, and they have to devote time to feed the soul, just as they devote tome to feed to body.

And then, at the end of the long sabbatical, just as everyone is anxious to get back to working the land, comes the Mitzvah to gather in the temple to hear the words of Torah. Moses tells the people that if they want to be able to juggle the blessings of private property and the truths of Judaism, then, BEFORE they get back to the field, they have to reenact the giving of the Torah at Sinai. They have to gather men woman and children. Why children? Because the children are crucial to the reenactment of Sinai. Sinai is the time when all our people, men woman and children, stood around the mountain, "as one person with one heart", united around the words and teachings of the Torah.

Moses understood that the future generations also need to experience this powerful feeling. The Feeling of unity that comes from self defining by the teachings of the Torah that unite, instead of by the material blessings we receive that can sometimes divide.

And then there is us.

We who's bodies did not stand at Sinai, and did not stand shoulder to shoulder with the entire nation of Israel at the reading of the Torah in the Temple. We too must mediate on this message each year, when the story of Moshe's last day on this earth is read in the Torah. We must close our eyes and imagine standing with all our brothers and sisters at the foot of Sinai, listening to the words of G-d.

Like one person with one heart.

The Rebellious Son

In what is perhaps the strangest section in the Torah about parenting, the Torah relates the law of the "wayward and rebellious son":

If a man has a wayward and rebellious son who does not obey his father or his mother, and they chasten him, and [he still] does not listen to them,

His father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place. And they shall say to the elders of his city, "This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; [he is] a glutton and a drunkard."

And all the men of his city shall pelt him with stones, and he shall die, and you shall eradicate the evil from amongst you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

The Rabbis of the Talmud understood that this law was not meant to actually be practiced; they explain that the criteria for the parents to be able to have the child killed are so high, it is virtually impossible for the law to be carried out. As the Talmud states:

Indeed, [a case of a "wayward and rebellious son"] never was, and never will be. So why was it written in the Torah? So that it should be studied and we should be rewarded [for studying it].

Perhaps we can suggest that by studying this section in the Torah we are rewarded with an important lesson in parenting

As parents we keep telling our children, and we pray that they take this message to heart, that we will always love them no matter what. That we will always be there for them. That no matter how far they stray, they can always return to our loving embrace. As parents we understand that for our children's psychological and spiritual well being, it is crucial that they internalize this message, and never doubt it for even one moment.

But there is another message, that while appearing to be similar to the first, is as destructive as the first is beneficial.

Sometimes, especially in affluent and privileged circles, a child picks up another message. Sometimes, the child hears mom and dad telling him or her, explicitly or implicitly: ‘no matter what you do we will bail you out’. The child believes, mistakenly or not, that he or she can get in trouble with the law, with friends, with teachers, with co-workers or even with a spouse, and mom and dad will be there to clean up the mess. The child, born into privilege, believes that he or she can be reckless because he or she will always get a second chance. The parents, who allowed the child to draw this conclusion, are doing this child a disservice. They may have good intentions, but they are destroying their child’s character.

So every night, as you tuck your child into bed, tell her that you’ll always love her. Tell her, that to her parents, she will always be the most important person in the universe. But, once a year, make sure she reads the section of the Torah about the wayward child. Make sure she hears about the child that strayed so far, that the parents are not willing or not able to clean up the mess.

Tuck her into bed, help her understand that she will always be loved, cherished, treasured, but help her understand that she won’t always be bailed out.   

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