From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“And the land shall rest.”
Karl Marx may have been the pioneer, but many Jews were involved in the quest for Communism in the early days of the Russian revolution. I have no apologies to make for this phenomenon. Having suffered unbearably under successive oppressive regimes, those political activists genuinely thought Communism would be better for the people than Czarist corruption. Their sense of idealism fueled hopes for a better life and a more equitable future for all.
On paper, Communism was a good idea. The fact that it failed—and that the new leaders may have outdone their predecessors’ oppression—may reflect on the personalities as much as on the system.
What is Judaism’s economic system? Is there one? I think it could be described as “capitalism with a conscience.” In promoting free enterprise, the Torah is clearly capitalistic. But it is a conditional capitalism and certainly a compassionate capitalism.
Winston Churchill once said, “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent vice of Communism is the equal sharing of miseries.” So Judaism introduced an open-market system where the sharing of blessings was not left to chance or to wishful thinking but was made mandatory.
Our parashah gives us a classic example. Shemittah, the Sabbatical year, was designed to allow the land to rest and regenerate. Six years the land would be worked, but on the seventh year it would rest and lie fallow. The agricultural cycle in the Holy Land carried with it strict sets of rules and regulations regarding the landowners’ rights and responsibilities. No planting, no pruning—and whatever grows by itself is “ownerless” and there for the taking. The owner may take some but so may his workers, friends, and neighbors. The landowner, in his own land, had no more right than the stranger. For six years you own the property, but on the seventh you enjoy no special claims.
This is but one example of many of Judaism’s “capitalism with a conscience” ideas. There were many other legislated obligations to the poor—not optional extras, not even pious recommendations, but clear mandatory contributions to be made to the less fortunate. The 10 percent tithes, leaving the corners of one’s field, the gleanings and the forgotten sheaves to the poor are all part of the system of compassionate capitalism. Judaism thus presents an economy that boasts the best of both worlds—the advantages of an unfettered, free market allowing personal expression and success relative to hard work without the drawbacks of corporate greed. If the land belongs to G‑d, then we have no exclusivity over it. G‑d bestows His blessings upon us but, clearly, the deal is that we must share. Without Torah law, capitalism fails. Unbridled ambition and the lust for money and power lead to monopolies and conglomerates that leave no room for the next guy and widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The Sabbatical year is one of many checks and balances that keep our capitalism kosher and kind.
Some people are too businesslike. Everything is measured and exact. Business is business. If I invited you for Shabbos, then I won’t repeat the invitation until you reciprocate first. If you gave my son $50 for his bar mitzvah, then that is exactly what I will give your son. What you or I are worth is irrelevant.
We should be softer, more flexible, not so hard, tough, and businesslike. By all means, be a capitalist, but be a kosher capitalist. Retain the traditional Jewish characteristics of kindness, compassion, tzedakah and chesed, generosity of spirit, heart—and pocket. May you make lots of money and encourage G‑d to keep showering you with His blessings by making sure you share it generously with others. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.