Reopening the Economy…?

Do we reopen the economy, or do we stay home to contain the spread of COVID-19?

This is the dichotomy that is being presented to us in current social discourse. This is the dichotomy that is further polarizing our already deeply divided nation. But do we really face a dichotomy between saving lives and saving our economy?

We know that right now, people in food service, entertainment, sports, travel, and nearly all other industries are experiencing true financial devastation. They don’t have jobs, and when our nation can return to business as usual, will jobs even be there to be had? That so many people are experiencing the violence of poverty during COVID-19 is an injustice. But does the only way forward involve forcing people to return to their jobs and risk their lives?

This week’s Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, can help shed some light on how we think about the economy. First, we learn about the concept of the Sabbatical year:

“Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Eternal: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard” (Leviticus 25:3-4).

Even in normal times, the Torah tells us that the economy would close somewhat every few years. God recognized that the land needed a break, and so did the people who cultivated it. Farmers couldn’t sell produce during that year, but there was still enough food from the previous years to carry everyone over. For six years, the market was more active; every seventh, it was quieter. Even more disruptive to the economy is the second economic concept taught in this Torah portion, the Jubilee year:

“You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month—the Day of Atonement—you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family…for it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you…for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Leviticus 25:8-12, 23).

Talk about closing the economy! Here, the Torah teaches that every 50th year, a person transfers ownership of her land to its original owner. People are also released from their debts during this year. According to the Torah, we are supposed to experience an economic revolution twice per century. Why? To remind us that while we might establish ourselves in a particular place, and become accustomed to certain economic norms, we are not the final arbiters of economic life; God is. 

The practice of the Jubilee year is complex, and the Rabbis of the Talmud discuss how improbable it is for the Jubilee year to be observed as it is described in the Torah (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, page 8b).

But however improbable it is to put into practice, the concept of the Jubilee year teaches us that though our markets may be structured in particular ways, we can and should strive to create systems that promote fairness and justice. If the way we currently do business will endanger lives, maybe we need to rethink the way we do business. Of course, this is aspirational; but after all, we are a people of aspiration.

As we continue to pare down our lives, to buy less and spend less, we have the opportunity to think about and support what matters most: the charities and initiatives that take care of the most vulnerable, and the communities of which we are a part. Though no one anticipated it, we are undergoing an economic revolution not unlike the upheaval of the Jubilee year. Maybe on the other side, we will rebuild a market where financial security and the value of life are not pitted against each other, but go hand in hand.

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