Equal Social Dignity

NOW ISRAEL LOVED JOSEPH best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.” —the Torah portion “Vayeshev”

There is something terribly irksome about inequity. At least for the ones on the outs.

We all know that life is unfair, that some people are more gifted, more adored, more successful, than others.

But when that inevitable inequity is flaunted before our eyes, when there isn’t even an effort to pretend that everyone is equal, then animosity starts to churn and lashing out may not be far behind.

This is what happened to Joseph, and thus Jacob too.

The Bible is well-aware of life’s constant assaults. And though they may be able to be borne for a while, they add up over time, often releasing their pain with undesirable consequences (whether we aim them outward, or inward).

Enter shmita. [The Torah says the land is must be allowed to rest every seventh year.] The sabbatical year is not just a structural effort to renew the land, or ease financial commitments through free access to food and the release of debts. It also serves to express the equal social dignity of everyone, everywhere in the boundaries of that community. Everyone has equal access and equal rights to the fields; everyone must gather food the same way. Everyone’s need and vulnerability are on display.

So whether you wear a coat of many colors or a simple shift when you glean, shmita is a reminder that we are all the same: temporary tenants wholly dependent on the gifts of this God-given world.

And while shmita is at its most evident, and thus most powerful, in the seventh year, its presence in the biblical world was felt throughout the seven-year cycle. Just as we know on Tuesday that Shabbat is coming, that our weeks are framed by the Shabbat that is past and the Shabbat that is yet to come, so the years in biblical times were framed, book-ended, by shemittah. The vision—if not the full practice—of equity and dignity permeated the intervening years.

Shmita can help us bring that awareness and practice of equity into our lives, not only in the seventh year, but in the entire cycle of our lives.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is the Director of the Maryland Campaign for Environmental Human Rights, an effort to create a state constitutional amendment assuring that everyone has a right to a healthful environment. A version of this appeared at Hazon.org, a movement weaving sustainability into the fabric of Jewish life.